Opening day is here: Will the Phillies punch back?

Opening day is here: Will the Phillies punch back?

April 1, 2013, 7:00 am
Share This Post

The Phillies are no longer the team to beat in the National League East.

Could that be a good thing for this club?

Chad Durbin thinks so.

“This team got punched in the mouth last year,” Durbin said one recent morning as spring training was nearing an end in Clearwater. “And sometimes a good punch in the mouth will do you some good.”

The punch in the mouth came in the form of an 81-81 season last year. After five straight seasons atop the NL East, the Phillies slipped to third place and finished behind Washington and Atlanta.

Sure, there were reasons for the Phillies’ disappointing season.

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley missed significant time in the first half with injuries. The bullpen was brutal in the first half. The eighth inning –- the Phils blew 13 leads in that frame -- was a sinkhole all season. Roy Halladay spent time on the disabled list en route to his worst season in a decade. Defense was a major problem as the club dropped to 15th in the majors in fielding percentage after ranking No. 1 during the 102-win season of 2011.

As the Phillies get ready to open a new season Monday night in Atlanta, Halladay remains a major question mark and defense is a concern until proven otherwise.

But there are reasons to feel good about this team, starting with the front two (Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee), the back two (newcomer Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon), and the big three (Howard, Utley and Jimmy Rollins).

On top of all this is an intangible that could serve this team well.

It was humbled last year.

It was punched in the mouth.

Durbin saw it from the other side. He helped the Phils win a World Series in 2008 and get back to the World Series in 2009. He saw the Phils’ swagger grow and grow and grow. Last year, he was a member of the Atlanta Braves. He watched, with enjoyment, as the Phillies’ run of division titles ended.

Durbin returned to the Phillies as a free agent this winter and the veteran reliever brings with him the perspective of an outsider and an insider.

“The younger guys on the Braves had consistently gotten the dog crap beaten out of them by the Phillies,” Durbin said. “Last year was the first time they were able to look at them and say, ‘Hey, they're human.’

“The injuries obviously had a lot to do with the Phillies’ season last year. But one thing I’ve noticed being back in this clubhouse is the hunger. Guys have a real hunger to prove themselves again. You have guys who have established careers who came here to win championships and it hasn’t happened yet.

“When you expect the last stair to be there and you go for it, and it isn’t there you’re going to hit the floor. It’s a punch in the mouth. You have to step back, look at it, be realistic and re-evaluate where you are, and I think that’s happened with a lot of guys. I sense the hunger.”

A little booster shot of hunger won’t hurt the Phils, but it won’t alone get them back to the top of the NL East.

They need to stay healthy.

They can’t dig a big hole for themselves early in the season as they did in 2012.

They need Hamels and Lee to be the elite 1-2 punch they are expected to be, and Adams and Papelbon to protect leads and lock down wins.

They need to beat up on division doormats in New York and Miami.

They need to catch the ball better than they did last year.

There’s more, of course.

It would help if Rollins could come close to duplicating last year’s second-half performance. It would also help if Domonic Brown is for real, not some spring mirage, and if Ben Revere can be as exciting a player as he was in Clearwater.

The Phillies have made a lot of memories for a lot of sports fans in Philadelphia the last half-dozen years. If they don’t make some positive memories this season, things could look very different a year from now.

Stalwarts such as Utley and Carlos Ruiz are both in the final year of their contracts. Newcomers Michael Young and Delmon Young, both being counted on to be offensive forces, will be eligible for free agency after the season. Halladay is in the final guaranteed year of his deal. After a shaky spring in which he had an alarming amount of trouble simply getting outs, his career appears at a crossroads. Lee is signed through 2015, but he could be trade bait if this team is out of contention in July. Lest we forget, one more big piece of this team’s recent success, manager Charlie Manuel, is in the last year of his contract.

The re-tooling of the Phillies could soon begin.

Will they have one more run in them?

Will a return to good health, a bullpen upgrade and a little hunger in the belly help vault them back into contention?

It all starts Monday night in Atlanta.

More Team Talk