Major Leagues: Phillies, Braves open season tonight
By Rob Maaddii
PHILADELPHIA ó The championship banner that’ll hang above Ashburn Alley and those shiny rings they’ll soon receive will be a constant reminder that the Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Series champions.
Once Brett Myers throws the first pitch tonight against the Atlanta Braves in the 2009 major league opener, last year won’t matter anymore.
“It’s time for us to go out there and defend our title, and play the game,” center fielder Shane Victorino said. “I’m not going to look back at ’08 once I get the season started on Sunday. You have to move forward. You’re definitely going to be talked about as the world champs, and we want to go out there and keep winning.”
Since the first day of spring training, players have stressed the importance of focusing on this season instead of reflecting on their magical run last October. The goal is to repeat. That’s no easy feat, considering it hasn’t been done this decade.
The New York Yankees were the last team to win consecutive championships, capturing three straight titles from 1998-2000. The Cincinnati Reds were the last NL team to win two in a row in 1975-76.
“Guys personally want to have better years, and that can only help us to repeat,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. “Guys aren’t satisfied with finally winning a championship. We want to be good for a number of years, and you have to stay hungry to do that.”
The outspoken Rollins kept a low profile this spring. Now that the Phillies are champions, his days as a prognosticator are over. It’s too bad because Rollins went 2-for-2 with his bold predictions.
Before the 2007 season, Rollins claimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East. Helped by a historic collapse by the New York Mets, Philadelphia overcame a big deficit and captured the division title. Rollins backed up his words by having an MVP season.
Last year, Rollins said the Phillies would win 100 games. They got 92 of them in the regular season and 11 more in the playoffs.
“Retirement,” Rollins said when asked for another pick. “I’ve said it five times.”
The Phillies are favorites to win another division crown because they have nearly the same team that breezed through the postseason, going 11-3 against Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay.
Every starter except left fielder Pat Burrell returns and four-fifths of the starting rotation is the same. Raul Ibanez replaced Burrell and Chan Ho Park took Kyle Kendrick’s spot in the rotation.
Cole Hamels, the MVP of the NLCS and World Series, isn’t pitching the opener because he had minor elbow problems. So, Myers gets his third straight opening day assignment.
Myers, who started his pro career in Kannapolis as a Piedmont Boll Weevil, was 10-13 with a 4.55 ERA last year. He pitched so poorly the first half that he was demoted to the minors, but was outstanding down the stretch. Myers lost 25 pounds in the offseason, and hopes for a bust-out year as he enters the final season of a $25.75, three-year contract.
“I think Brett Myers has had that potential his whole career, and this year has the potential to a big year for him,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “I think he’s ready to go and he spent a lot of time this winter working out and getting in shape and he came to spring training that way. He’s looking forward to having a big season for us, and we need him to have a big season to repeat.”
Myers will be opposed by Derek Lowe, who was lured away from the Dodgers by a $60 million, four-year contract. Lowe was 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA last year. The Phillies beat him in Game 1 of the NLCS and he had a no-decision in Philadelphia’s victory in Game 4.
Lowe anchors an overhauled rotation that includes newcomers Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami. Atlanta has missed the playoffs three straight years after winning an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles. The Phillies were 14-4 against the Braves last year, including 9-0 in Atlanta.
“We just need to be us, and not try and look at last season to put more pressure on ourselves. It’s 2009 now,” Phillies slugger Ryan Howard said.