Phils look to start hot

Phillies looking to pick up where they left off

PHILADELPHIA -- On July 31, 2006, after a trade deadline veteran exodus left many thinking a rebuilding project was under way, Ryan Howard surveyed the damage.

"So this is who's left?" he asked. "I guess there's nothing else to do but win this thing."

The "thing," of course, was the National League Wild Card, then the pennant and World Series. Before anyone in the media could question Howard's half-joking call to arms, the eventual National League MVP smiled and said, "And why not?"

From there, the team went on a torrid ride that took it from 5 1/2 games back in the Wild Card on July 31 -- and behind six other teams -- to a near-amazing comeback.

"As bad as we were at one point last year and then almost making the playoffs and making that run," Chris Coste said, "it was the most fun I've ever had playing, and we didn't even make the playoffs. If we would have made the playoffs, I'm sure it would have been multiplied by 100."

The good vibes from 2006 aside, the realistic players immediately looked toward correcting a fatal flaw. Specifically, they pointed to April, when things weren't so hot, and June, when things were even colder. Strong finish aside, the players and their manager can't put enough emphasis on the importance of a good start.

"We know we have to start better," said manager Charlie Manuel, who likely won't need to remind players of back-to-back 10-14 Aprils that marred the season. "We know how to focus and come out strong, but we still have to execute and do it."

While an explosive offense is a near guarantee -- the Phillies led the league in runs scored -- the players point to improved starting pitching as the biggest reason for optimism.

The team acquired Freddy Garcia from the White Sox to be the ace, and he'll lead a staff that consists of Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton. Last season, starters Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd and ace Jon Lieber struggled early, too often putting the Phillies behind, which can wear a team down mentally.

"I think it's encouraging knowing we're going to start with a better team than last year," Coste said. "That should help us out a lot. The Braves have improved. The Mets, their starting pitching isn't quite as good, but they're still a solid team. We don't have a real easy division."

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The Phillies will be tested early, as 20 of the first 26 games are against NL East opponents, beginning with an opening series against the Braves and a road trip through Florida and New York.

Fourteen games are at home, where the Phillies were 41-40 last season. Either way, a good start would go a long way.

"We have to make up 12 games somehow," assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said recently, referring to the Mets, who won the NL East by that amount.

"I think we have a great team," added Howard. "I think that we have a great shot [to make the playoffs]. The moves that were made in the offseason, I'm excited to go down to Spring Training and get ready. Every team in the beginning of the season feels the same way. Every team is a champion on paper, but it's a matter of going out and taking care of business. If we go out, relax and have fun, just play our game, we'll be fine."

Starting in April.

"I think the people in this town are not only dying for a playoff [berth] for us, but a lot of success in the playoffs," Coste said. "It's just about getting in the playoffs, getting hot at the right time and getting good pitching. On paper, we're a better team than we were at the end of last year. Hopefully we can start off better than we did last year and give the fans something to root for right away."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.