Phillies-Pirates Preview


Even with two of their best players out with injuries, the Philadelphia Phillies are eager to put the sting of last year's playoff failure behind them and begin a new season.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are optimistic that this might be the year they end baseball's longest stretch without a winning season.

That challenge begins at home Thursday when the Pirates look to avoid a fifth consecutive loss to the five-time NL East champion Phillies.

Philadelphia set a franchise record with a major league-leading 102 wins in 2011. However, the Phillies scored 10 runs in the final four games of the NL divisional series, which they lost in five to eventual World Series champion St. Louis.

"You don't get over it that easy,'' said outfielder Hunter Pence, who hit .324 with 11 homers and 35 RBIs in 54 regular season games after the Phillies acquired him from Houston last summer. "We were an extremely good team last year, but now is the time to move on because we want to be an extremely good team this year.

"Nothing is given to you and you have to earn everything."

The Phillies must earn their success early on without stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Howard, the former MVP who has hit at least 30 homers in each of the last six seasons, is likely out until June after tearing his Achilles tendon while making the final out in Game 5.

Utley, meanwhile, continues to rehab from his latest knee problem. His return is uncertain, making it unclear if the Phillies can remain a serious World Series contender without two of the game's biggest stars.

With Howard and Utley last season, Philadelphia still only ranked seventh in the NL with 713 runs and eighth with 153 homers.

"I think it'll be tough, but of course we can win,'' general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We've had bumps in the road like this before."

In an attempt to smooth some of those bumps Amaro brought in former Phillie Jim Thome, one of eight players with 600 home runs, Juan Pierre, who has 2,020 hits, and Laynce Nix, who hit a career-high 16 homers for Washington last season.

Former All-Star Ty Wigginton is also in the mix, and could replace Howard at first base to start.

"There's not a lot of offense, huh?" Amaro said. "We have to catch the ball and pitch it like we did last year.''

Pitching is what the Phillies continue to do well.

A starting rotation complete with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, budding star Vance Worley and veteran Roy Oswalt late in the season, led the majors in ERA (2.86), strikeouts (932), innings pitched (1,064 2-3) and complete games (18).

All but Oswalt return this season.

Philadelphia's entire pitching staff led baseball with a 3.02 ERA, and got an even bigger boost when former Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies. Papelbon's 31 saves in 34 chances in 2011 were his fewest in six seasons.

He might not get the chance to make his Philadelphia debut Thursday with Halladay on the mound.

The right-hander went 19-6 in 32 starts and finished second in the majors with a 2.35 ERA in 2011. His eight complete games led the NL.

"What I'm going to try to do is just go out and do my job and hold myself accountable," Halladay told the Phillies' official website.

He is 3-1 with a 1.18 ERA in five career starts versus Pittsburgh.

Facing Halladay is obviously a daunting task for the Pirates, who were 27th in the majors in both home runs (107) and runs (610) last season.

Pittsburgh was 51-44 and owned a one-half game lead in the Central Division on July 19, but went 21-46 the rest of the way to secure a 19th straight losing season.

Despite the collapse, the Pirates' 72 wins were 15 more than the previous season.

"We're better,'' manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've got to go prove it on the field now.''

Led by All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who set career highs with 23 homers and 89 RBIs in 2011, the Pirates believe they can contend for a full season in a division minus superstars Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder.

Third baseman Casey McGehee, infielder Clint Barmes, catcher Rod Barajas and former Pirate Nate McLouth were brought in to help Pittsburgh build on their improvements from last season.

"I feel like we've got a lot of guys that can contribute,'' said McCutchen, who signed a six-year, $51.5 million contract in March. "There is no backtrack on what we have.''

Pitching could be the key to the team's success.

Though Joel Hanrahan and his 40 saves return, supposed ace A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton begin the season on disabled list. That leaves oft-injured Erik Bedard to make his Pirates debut in the opener.

After missing 2010 with a shoulder injury, Bedard went 5-9 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 starts for Seattle and Boston last season.

"I'm going to do the best I can,'' Bedard said. "I know I've had a lot of injuries in the past and I'm trying to get over that.''

The left-hander is 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA in three starts against the Phillies, but he has not faced them since 2006.