It’s Opening Day, and Hope Springs Eternal

So why am I feeling so nervous about the Phils?

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Washington D.C. with a group of 60 people – “Halladay’s Inn” – to enjoy the Phillies’ season opener and begin a six-month journey that every Philadelphia baseball fan hopes ends with a raucous celebration on Broad Street. It’s a tradition I have observed pretty regularly for more than 20 years and ties together the end of winter’s ugly grip, the promise of diamond prosperity and the chance to blow off work for a day.

Since I was six years old and cheering for the pitiful late-‘60s home team, I have had a standard answer to the same annual question:

“Who’s going to win the World Series?”

“The Phillies.” [SIGNUP]

It didn’t matter whether it was the early ‘70s, when kids in the neighborhood would literally line up to bet me that the stinky Phils weren’t going to win 70 games, much less the Series, the late ‘90s, when Jim Fregosi and Terry Francona squired horrific editions or today, when good feelings abound. Who’s going to win it all? The Phils, baby.

And that’s my stance this year, even if means adopting a myopic view that refuses to consider some of the truly concerning circumstances surrounding this team. Because if you analyze the Phillies coming out of spring training, there are some things that could make even the most faithful fan a little nervous.

Start with the bullpen. Brad Lidge was hoping to be back by the opener. He’s not. Late April is now the target date, and we are supposed to be cheered by the fact that the cortisone shot he received last week was on the outside of his elbow, not the surgically-repaired inner portion. Whew! All that means is both sides of the joint are shaky, no doubt the reason his fastball couldn’t get out of the 80s in the spring. With Lidge unavailable, the closer’s role falls on Ryan Madson, he of the 96-mph heater and ninth-inning meltdown. Maybe Charlie Manuel can convince Madson that he’s actually pitching in the eighth inning, the better to ward of the industrial-strength case of the yips he develops when asked to finish things up.

J.C. Romero’s doing fine. He just won’t be ready for a couple weeks, meaning Antonio Bastardo – he of the magnificent 5.06 spring ERA – is the sole southpaw in the bullpen for a while. That’s enough to depress even the Phanatic. And how about ageless (no one can find his birth certificate) Jose Contreras? He was even worse, logging an 8.31 ERA in the spring and melting more quickly than a snowman in south Florida down the stretch.

The starting rotation is fine, unless you consider that it’s now comprised of two number-five hurlers, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick. And though Cole Hamels has stopped frowning at his teammates when they make bad plays in the field, he has forgotten how to get people out, as his last two exhibition starts (9 1/3 innings pitched, eight earned runs) proved. Of course, since old Cliff Whatsisname is on the DL in Seattle, it was a great idea to get rid of him. Just wait until May when Joe Blanton’s strained oblique is healed. Things will be just fine.

At least the lineup will be all right, as long as it doesn’t bother you that Raul Ibanez had one more spring hit than someone named Brian Bocock and hasn’t been productive since last June. At least he only costs $20 million for this season and the next. The good news is that if Ibanez staggers through the season, the team has replenished its farm system with a French-Canadian pitcher and a high-ERA minor-league hurler that will allow it to trade for Magglio Ordonez, Ryan Braun or another slugging outfielder.

No team is perfect, and everybody knows that. It’s just that the last two seasons’ prosperity has led Philadelphia fans to believe the Phils can overcome everything with one swing of Ryan Howard’s bat or Roy Halladay’s indomitable spirit. Yes, this team is very good, and the swagger it brings into the 2010 season is substantial. But the Phillies are trying to do something – win three straight NL pennants – that hasn’t been done in more than 65 years (Cardinals, 1942-44), and the sense that this town believes such an accomplishment to be inevitable is a little scary. We don’t do so well with overconfidence in Philadelphia, and the embryonic ’10 season has already given us reason for pause.

That said, there is no reason to run through Ashburn Alley screaming “The sky is falling!” The Phillies are everybody’s favorite in the NL, and for good reason. They’re talented, experienced and battle-tested. It’s just that spring concerns sometimes blossom into summer epidemics. What happens if Hamels doesn’t get it together? Is Lidge going to be healthy? Can Ibanez return to his early 2009 form? It’s enough to make you wonder if the Phils can win it all again.

Well, can they?

Do you have to ask?

MICHAEL BRADLEY fights for truth and justice in the world of sports from his secure World Headquarters in suburban Philadelphia. His work appears in Sporting News, Athlon publications, Hoop Magazine and Slam, and he is a regular contributor to Sirius Mad Dog Radio and 97.5 The Fanatic. He writes about sports for The Philly Post every Monday.