CLEARWATER, Fla. – First they vanquished the New York Mets. Then they shunted aside the rest of the National League. Now, for the Philadelphia Phillies, two-time defending NL champions and again the team to beat, comes the most difficult foe yet, an inanimate object that permeates their psyche more than any bunch of opponents.
"We still have an enemy: history," shortstop Jimmy Rollins(notes) said. "This franchise … a lot of losses. Every year, we fight history. Fans coming to the park still expect bad things to happen just because it's a Philadelphia franchise, no matter what we've done.
"Well, history is not going to get us anymore as long as I'm on the clock."
Rollins' clock has ticked for a decade now, from his days as a brash young shortstop for a middling franchise to his present as a brash 31-year-old shortstop for an elite juggernaut. And never has Philadelphia been in this position before: Primed to become the first team since the Gas House Gang Cardinals to represent the NL in the World Series three consecutive years.
For 66 years, NL teams have tried and failed. Twice Atlanta went back-to-back and couldn't complete the deed. Same with Los Angeles in the late '70s, the Big Red Machine, the Cardinals in '67 and '68, Los Angeles the two years before, the Milwaukee Braves in '57 and '58, Brooklyn the two prior years and the Dodgers again in '52 and '53. That's nine for nine, all caught looking on the third strike.
The Phillies want to make sure the NL's streak doesn't reach double digits. They reloaded with a full season of Roy Halladay(notes), a new cutter for Cole Hamels(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes) entering a walk year. Ryan Howard(notes) remains in excellent shape, Chase Utley(notes) is hand in hand with Derek Jeter(notes) as the best player in the game not to win an MVP award and Shane Victorino(notes) is one of the best center fielders around.
These aren't the Phillies who need crazy collapses from the Mets to make the playoffs. They are the aggressors, chased instead of chasing, their own history as well as their league's taunting them.
"We know who we are," Rollins said. "We have an identity. We're a lot more relaxed in expecting to win and then doing it. It's just different. Are we better because of that? I hope so. We have respect. Now it's just continuing to be good and leaving a legacy.
"Only two teams get to compete for that. You could win 140 games, and if you lose in the first round, what was that record-breaking season for? Might as well have won 80 games. Nobody remembers second place. No one cares who played in the World Series. They care who won."
Affirmation comes from diamond-encrusted jewelry, though Rollins could use some inflated numbers, too. His .296 on-base percentage last year was the lowest of his career and worst among all regular shortstops (excepting Yuniesky Betancourt(notes), because he shouldn't be a regular). Rollins' .423 slugging percentage was his lowest since 2003. He scored his 100 runs and played his Gold Glove-caliber defense, sure, but Rollins wants more.
He's always looking for bigger, his inner Napoleon difficult to bury. It's why Rollins is teaming with one of his sponsors, Red Bull, to try something they're calling Ballpark Cranks. They commissioned physicists to make a special ball and bat – "They're juicing it all for me," Rollins said – and on April 13 will cordon off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway so Rollins can attempt to break the Guinness record for the longest batted ball.
He hasn't participated in a home run derby of any sort since he was 10 or 11 and in his back yard. Rollins' longest home run last year traveled 424 feet, which is 59 feet shy of Howard's most epic shot – and nothing compared to the Guinness record of 576 feet.
"It better be some real good technology," Rollins said. "I think I can do it. It would be nice to get that record. That and (three straight) World Series. Never done either. You've got to have perfect timing with both. You've got to get good pitches. And you've got to think you're going to do it."
History is waiting.
The rest of the NL East, alphabetically …
For all the flack Frank Wren took in the 2009 offseason – letting Rafael Furcal(notes) get away, not consummating a Jake Peavy(notes) deal and, pretty much, just not being John Schuerholz – look at the Braves now. They're top-to-bottom stacked, with the potential to score a ton of runs, throw a bunch of shutouts and win a lot of games. If Jason Heyward(notes) really does walk on water, a full season of him and Tommy Hanson(notes) gives the Braves a pair of stars around whom to build going forward. Throw in catcher Brian McCann(notes), shortstop Yunel Escobar(notes) and starter Jair Jurrjens(notes), and the Braves will be threats for a while. Hey, Bobby Cox: You sure you want to retire after this season?
While it's too early to saint Jeffrey Loria for taking the padlock off his checkbook, the retention of Dan Uggla(notes) and contract extension for Josh Johnson(notes) this offseason sufficed in getting Major League Baseball off the Marlins' case. Hopefully, it wasn't a one-time goodwill gesture, because the long-term viability of the franchise depends on keeping the talent Larry Beinfest and Co. continue to churn out. Though the Braves' overhaul keeps the Marlins a third-place team for now, even with Johnson and the resurgent Ricky Nolasco(notes) fronting a rotation that goes more than five deep – and needs to, with a shaky bullpen behind it. Something to look forward to if not contention: The midsummer arrival of outfielder Mike Stanton(notes), whose raw power is downright Ruthian and whose propensity to strike out damn near Reynoldsian.
It all comes to a head this year, right? The decade or so of mismanagement and the profligate spending and the makeshift philosophies and the ideological buffoonery – the modern Mets, not as embarrassing on the field as their early 1960s counterparts but mighty troublesome when looking at their payrolls, more than $140 million, and realizing that each win last season cost more than $2 million. Call them what you please – the New York Mess, the Omar Minaya Disaster or otherwise – but recognize that even if the Jason Bay(notes) signing gave them another bat, it compounded a philosophical problem that only a regime change can solve. This isn't about money or injuries; it's about competence, something the Mets have lacked for a long, long time.
Compared to what he inherited, general manager Mike Rizzo has turned the Nationals into at least a competent group. Picking first overall in the draft with the Pitcher of the Century – or perhaps Stephen Strasburg(notes) is the Pitcher of the Millennium … nay, Pitcher of the Megaannum! – didn't hurt the rebuilding process, nor will the top choice in this year's draft. The Nationals are set at the corners with Ryan Zimmerman(notes) and Adam Dunn(notes) and better up the middle with rookie shortstop Ian Desmond(notes) and a full season of center fielder Nyjer Morgan(notes). And still, they're in baseball's second-toughest division, against teams with payrolls and resources that far exceed theirs, and Jason Marquis(notes), Pudge Rodriguez and Matt Capps(notes) don't exactly turn Washington into winners. Just respectable, and that's enough for now.