Four Aces may not be enough for the Phillies to take the pot

The Philadelphia Phillies begin their highly anticipated season Friday afternoon against the Houston Astros at Citizen Banks Park. If you have tickets, bring your sled. Apparently a spring Nor’easter could intrude on the proceedings, and that’s no April Fool’s Day joke.
Armed with nothing but aces in their starting rotation, the Phillies should be buoyed by peacock arrogance. But their spring fling in Florida threw them some curves.

From the first peep of spring training, incapacitating injuries and the erosion of too many remorseless years on some stalwarts have taken a toll that requires more than an E-Z Pass. .
Hold off on making World Series plans just yet, Phillies’ fans.

Granted, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt figure to ventilate the opposition in most games.

But not every game. All four of them won’t be unbeaten and untied this season. And if they are, I owe you a beer.

Which means the Phillies will need a panoply of offensive threats besides a Ryan Howard home run.

And good luck with that.

Even with a relatively healthy and robust lineup last year, the Phillies couldn’t play small ball. They couldn’t seem to manufacture runs no matter what foreman was running the assembly line.

Now with second baseman Chase Utley sidelined indefinitely by a knee that must sound like walnuts cracking, third baseman Placido Polanco sporting an elbow more fragile than a glass hammer, Jayson Werth counting his money in D.C., left fielder Raul Ibañez older than dirt and newly minted right fielder Ben Francisco needing to morph from a supporting role into a leading man, the Phillies’ lineup suddenly has sprouted more question marks than my lawn has dandelions in the spring (assuming we have one this year).

Compounding their lineup problems, shortstop Jimmy Rollins is slipping into the twilight shadows of his career and center fielder Shane Victorino may be a fan favorite but hardly is the reincarnation of Richie Ashburn.

Granted, catcher Chico Ruiz was a clutch-hitting marvel last season. The key question for Ruiz is whether he can replicate that production. As you know, some sequels hardly are smash hits.

Meanwhile, Mets’ reject Luis Castillo, once upon a time a solid offensive-defensive threat until the tread came off his tires, will fill in for Utley. Pray that he doesn’t need too many pit stops.

Which means Charlie Manuel, that George Clooney lookalike, better be Einstein and Solomon when it comes to figuring out a lineup that seems devoid of solid No. 3 and No. 5 hitters in the absence of Utley and Werth. The next time Howard gets a good pitch to hit at cleanup it’s because the pitcher has the control of an 80-year-old bladder.

And unless the Four Aces throw a complete game in every start, which seems somewhat unlikely, a bullpen without a closer could leave the Phils naked with nowhere to hide in late innings.

Brad Lidge, with more anxious moments than Houdini even when the former Mr. Perfect Save was healthy, is out until May with a strained right posterior rotator cuff. No wonder his velocity this spring was so slow his fastball wouldn’t have been flagged for speeding in a 25 mph zone.

Ryan Madson is a consistent setup man when not kicking himself but the remainder of the bullpen — Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, Danys Baez, J.C. Romero, Kyle Kendrick and Antonio Bastardo — can be shakier than a belly dancer on amphetamines. And apparently Contreras, another guy on the aging Phillies who hasn’t been carded in light years, apparently is the closer for now.

Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt and stepchild starter Joe Blanton all better have rubber arms and shoulders because the two most popular words in Philly figure to be complete game.

Of course, it’s early yet so don’t allow my realistic pessimism to flatten your beer at Citizens Bank Park or in front of your plasma TV.

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