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Phillies off to blazing start as home opener comes, but real challenges lie ahead

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You knew the Phillies offense would score runs. 43 runs is nothing to sneeze at after their first six games, and this display of firepower is quite remarkable.

Jimmy Rollins seems to have established a newfound patience at the plate which has seen him already score eight runs, including his homer Sunday leading off the game off Astros starter Roy Oswalt. Moreover, Rollins' Jimmy Rollins has kick-started the Phillies new look offense so far in 2010. Photo: Howard Smith. US Presswireapproach has paid off in dividends for Placido Polanco, who is hitting .542 with 13 hits and 8 runs batted in going into Sunday's game against Houston. Chase Utley has been his consistent self, and Raul Ibanez  seems to be getting out of his Spring Training-early season funk. The biggest surprise however, could be Ryan Howard. Not a notoriously fast starter, Howard is tied for the league lead in home runs (3) and leads the league with 10 runs batted in (Polanco is second). What's more impressive is his handling of off-speed pitches and the fact that he has struck out only four times this year (although three of them were against Houston Sunday). Only Shane Victorino seems to be struggling right now, and his home run added some insurance in the Phils 9-6 victory Saturday. The Phillies even entered Sunday's game leading the league in on base percentage- something they DEFINITELY are not known for.

As a result of Sunday's win, the Phils have won more games against the Astros this year than they did in all of 2009. It also bumped the Phillies record to 5-1, their best start since 1993.

Now, let's look at the big picture..............

I hate to be the guy to do this. But come on, the Nationals and Astros are probably two of the worst teams in the majors. They hit their first home run of the season last night, and the presence of Lance Berkman is sorely missed. The Phillies are fortunate enough to have these teams on the schedule for the first nine games of the season, and you have to pounce when the opportunity presents itself. Remember back in the day when the Phillies would roll over and lose to cellar dwellers? Exactly. The REAL challenge for the Phillies will come in the next few weeks, when they will play the pitching-rich Marlins, a much improved Atlanta Braves squad (which includes rookie phenom Jason Heyward), and a San Fransisco Giants squad which is never fun when a possible Tim Lincecum-Matt Cain combination looms on the horizon.

As far as their starting pitching goes, there are some concerns to say the least.  There is Roy Halladay, one iffy (J.A. Happ), one injured (Joe As far as the starters go, there's Roy Halladay.....   Photo: www.phillygameday.comBlanton), two question marks (Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer), and one very big question mark (Cole Hamels) possibly holding the keys to your season. When two of your starters (Hamels,Happ) can't get to the sixth inning and they both throw over 100 pitches, there is cause for concern. As previously mentioned, the Nats and Astros won't remind anyone of the 1927 Yankees. I know it's only one game, but Kyle Kendrick was less than impressive, and 47 year-old Jamie Moyer  coughed up five runs at lightning speed Saturday night. With the home opener Monday, it is vital that Hamels returns to his A game. If not, the sold-out crowd will eat him alive.

Is this really a surprise to anyone? Not really. In saying that, if there was THIS much uncertainty as far as our staff is concerned, should the team really have been THAT concerned about trading Cliff Lee  for prospects at this time? There is already talk in the organization they they are worried about their pitching depth (see Nelson Figueroa). If the Phils' starters don't improve, this puts more pressure on the offense to win many 10-7 games. In the process, it will exhaust the bullpen, which has been a pleasant surprise in the early going.

Speaking of the bullpen, for the most part they have looked pretty good. Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, and David Herndon  have been throwing absolute gas. Baez and Herndon had great springs, but Contreras had a horrific one, so go figure. Once Herndon gets more command of his pitches (mainly his sinker), he could be a legitimate seventh or eighth inning man. I say eighth inning because it is looking bleaker and bleaker for Brad Lidge at this time. Lidge was roughed up in his first rehab stint  Friday night, so it appears more likely that Ryan Madson will stay in the closers role for the time being. Truthfully, Madson is probably better suited in the eighth inning, but for now the Phillies will have to make due. While the news wasn't very encouraging for Lidge, J.C. Romero did fare well in his rehab assignment, and the Phillies desperately need another left-hander in the pen right now.

It is early in the season, and you can't accurately evaluate a team's strengths and weaknesses just yet. However, most of us saw these coming a mile away. Let's just hope Ruben and Co. make the necessary changes when it matters most, because we're all up for having lots of fun at Citizens Bank Park this summer.

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

 

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