"Forgive Rollins for feeling as if he's being hunted; The Mets are seeking vengeance."
Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino were enjoying a leisurely snorkel a few months ago off the coast of Kona in Victorino's home state of Hawaii, when Rollins noticed a massive, shadowy figure coming at them, and coming fast. "Your eyes get big, and you're just like, What is it? What is it?" recalls Rollins, the reigning NL MVP and a self-proclaimed National Geographic Channel junkie. "You can't run. You can't get out. There's nothing you can do."
The beast turned out to be a harmless manta ray, which flapped away before it got too close. Rollins, though, can be forgiven for feeling as if he's being hunted these days; the Mets are seeking vengeance after the Phillies surged past them from seven games back with 17 to play last September to snatch the NL East title. To that end New York acquired an ace in Johan Santana, while Philadelphia's off-season acquisitions were more modest. They included former Brewers outfielder Geoff Jenkins (20 or more homers in seven of his nine full seasons) and ex-Giants third baseman Pedro Feliz, who's averaged 21 homers over the past four seasons and who G.M. Pat Gillick believes can slug 30 playing in the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park.
The most important newcomer is former All-Star closer Brad Lidge, who was acquired from the Astros in a five-player deal in November. The 31-year-old righthander has pitched erratically since Albert Pujols turned a two-out, ninth-inning slider into a game-winning three-run blast in the 2005 NLCS -- he had a combined 4.37 ERA with 51 saves in '06 and '07, versus a 2.07 ERA with 71 saves in '04 and '05. Gillick, though, says his scouts saw flashes of Lidge's old dominance last September. Indeed, his strikeout rate (roughly 12 per nine innings in each of the last two seasons) suggests that his pure stuff remains overpowering, if inconsistent. "Our reports from the last 30 days of the season were that he had been throwing as well as he has the past couple years," says Gillick. "There had been a rumor around the league that he was tipping his pitches, and that was part of the problem. I don't know whether that was the case or not. He has the kind of stuff that whether he tips his pitches or not, when he's on, he's pretty unhittable."
Lidge was unhittable this spring, but that's only because his exhibition season was cut short after one batting-practice pitch, during which he caught his spike on the mound and tore the meniscus in his right knee. Still, he could return from arthroscopic surgery as soon as late next week, and his presence has allowed manager Charlie Manuel to move Brett Myers, who started the '07 opener but made 48 of his 50 subsequent appearances from the bullpen (21 saves in 24 opportunities), back to the top of the rotation, where he's sorely needed. Phillies starters ranked 12th in the NL with a 4.91 ERA last season. "Anything I can do to help the team, man," says Myers. "If they need me to play third base, I'll do that."
The Phillies won't require the offensive services of Myers, a .126 career hitter, as their lineup led the league with 892 runs scored in '07 and still features a trio of perennial MVP candidates -- Rollins, first baseman Ryan Howard (nine homers before May 31, 38 thereafter) and second baseman Chase Utley. Even the most powerful of offenses can be slowed, however, as Philadelphia's was when it scored a total of eight runs in a three-game NL Division Series sweep by Colorado in October. Solid pitching, on the other hand, is generally a constant. If Lidge regains his All-Star form, and if the three starters behind Myers and budding ace Cole Hamels (the soft-tossing trio of second-year man Kyle Kendrick, 45-year-old Jamie Moyer and journeyman Adam Eaton) are merely league average, Philadelphia should again battle the Mets for the NL East crown into late September. And if the staff doesn't come through? A repeat of last season's success will be dead in the water. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 31, 2008