Thursday, April 5, 2012

Manuel, Phillies ready to lift lid on season

The burning anticipation hung like a thick fog over the entire Diamond Club at Citizens Bank Park.

It was just 24 hours until the first pitch of Opening Day for the Philadelphia Phillies, but the team's television broadcasters and manager Charlie Manuel all said the same thing.

"We were ready two weeks ago."

A special event was held at the stadium's exclusive club for all the radio stations that broadcast Phillies games, including Gettysburg's own Fox Sports 1320, of which I was an honorary employee for two hours.

After a filling lunch of Italian hoagies, cheesesteaks and Tastycakes, the group was treated to a Q & A session, first with GM Ruben Amaro, Jr., and then Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. These unique media members were the last who got to grill Amaro and Manuel about all the issues facing the team before the start of the regular season.

Amaro was his usual cryptic self, speaking in generalizations about the state of the team, and he looked quite flustered by the last few questions/comments from the crowd. One suggested that maybe Jimmy Rollins would stop swinging at the first pitch with the wise hitting presence of Jim Thome in the dugout. Amaro quickly snapped back, "You're not upset when Jimmy gets a hit on the first pitch."

Perhaps to distract us from the ongoing negotiations to sign Cole Hamels long-term and the unknown timetables for the return of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Amaro went in depth about the disgusting nature of Howard's recent infection around his surgically repaired Achilles tendon.

God knows why the GM would have his hands anywhere near the injured foot of one of his players, but the event's MC, Phillies play-by-play radio broadcaster Scott Franzke, made light of the situation by asking the audience, "Everyone ready for lunch?"

The mood was more relaxed when Dubee and Manuel took the stage, but even Manuel seemed a bit testy about the questions he's also been asked for the past six weeks.

Fans and reporters do have a valid cause for concern, especially considering we've all grown accustomed to the Phillies winning the NL East every year.

If you want to point the finger at what could snap that five-year streak, look no further than the offense. Lack of hitting has been the culprit for most of the Phillies' losses over the past two years, and the absence of more trophies on the shelf next to 2008. The only offensive additions the team made in the offseason were to its bench, so as a hitters' manager, Manuel will continue to field some tough questions as the season gets going.

Howard and Utley will be mere shadows of themselves after they return - I would say May for Utley and July for Howard - and a third of Philly's games will come against Atlanta and the much-improved clubs in Miami and Washington (Manuel's money is still on the Braves as their toughest competition in the division). The Phillies will still make the playoffs, but if they want the high seed a division title brings, Rollins will have to stay healthy the whole year, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will both have to hit above .300 and John Mayberry, Jr. will need to have a breakout year with 25-30 home runs.

Amidst all the negative predictions, Amaro and Manuel were positively gushing about Joe Savery, who was the 12th and final pitcher to be named to the Phillies' Opening Day roster. The team's first-round draft pick in 2007, Savery converted to hitting last year after serious control problems, but he magically rediscovered his hurling talents and made the team after a solid Spring Training (1-1, 3.48 ERA). With Jose Contreras opening the season on the Disabled List, Savery will get to prove himself out of the Phillies bullpen.

Pitching is the area that the Phightins' aren't worried about, so much so that color announcer Gary "Sarge" Matthews claimed during a Spring Training broadcast that he could take over for Dubee. His fellow broadcasters let the audience know that they will never let him live that one down.

With fiery closer Jonathan Papelbon now putting the finishing touches on the masterpieces of the three aces, we can excuse Sarge's impertinence. We've gotten used to it over the past five years.

I was selected to ask Manuel one final question before he and the rest of the team left for Pittsburgh, and I decided to go easy on him. I wanted to know which pitcher gets the most upset at him when he walks to the mound to take them out.

"I'd say Halladay, (Cliff) Lee and Vance Worley," he replied.

Phillies radio color man and former pitcher Larry Andersen immediately followed by asking Manuel in jest if he ever got scared taking Halladay - who will start Game 1 against the Pirates this afternoon - out of a game in the ninth inning.

Charlie gave the slightest of smiles and said, "If I ever got scared, I'd turn around, go into my office, take off my uniform and go home. You can't ever be scared to do that."

That answer reminded us all why Manuel is the winningest manager in Phillies history, and with him at the helm, there's no reason to look upon the 2012 season with anything but excitement.

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