Clearwater, Fla. — As the Philadelphia Phillies look for a way to surpass the world champion Mets in the National League East, they have many answers and one major question. Last season the Phillies were out of the race almost before it began, going 15-24 to drop 12 games off the pace by May 25. They accelerated thereafter, however, posting a 71-51 record the rest of the way to finish second in the division. And although they wound up trailing their New York rivals by a whopping 21 games, they were the only team in the league to beat them head to head (10-8).
To turn these partial feats of 1986 into a realistic chance for a championship this season, the Phillies will need consistent starting pitching - something they had during their pennant-winning years of 1980 and '83, but have lacked lately.
``Pitching is our only question mark,'' says third-year manager John Felske. ``If our young pitchers come through, we'll be in the hunt.''
Philadelphia's chances have been bolstered by some key off-season moves - the biggest one being the acquisition of perennial American League All-Star Lance Parrish as a free agent. Although the ex-Detroit catcher has spent more of spring training in contract entanglements than in baseball gear, his arrival last week brought out Felske's highest hopes.
``Look at what Gary Carter did for the Mets,'' he exclaimed.
If Parrish can avoid the back problems that curtailed his play last season, he should not only help the team's young pitchers and anchor the defense, but provide additional offensive punch as well. Veteran Mike Easler, acquired from the Yankees for pitcher Charles Hudson, brings a .302 average and 78 RBIs as he prepares to follow Schmidt in the batting order and take up residence in left field.
The Phillies also expect a full year's performance from center fielder and base-stealing artist Gary Redus, who came from Cincinnati in a big trade a year ago but missed almost half the season with injuries. Felske deems Redus one of the three best leadoff men in the league.
There's also a host of veteran holdovers led by slugging third baseman Mike Schmidt, whose return to form last season resulted in a league-leading 37 home runs and 119 RBIs s well as his third Most Valuable Player award.
``I got my 600 at-bats and cut down on my strikeouts,'' Schmidt explains. ``I also had a great player hitting in front of me and a couple behind me.''
The blue-chip players surrounding Mike in the lineup are Von Hayes, Glenn Wilson, and Juan Samuel, whose efforts helped the Phillies finish second to the Mets in runs scored last season.
Hayes, a first baseman, knocked in 98 runs, scored 107 more, hit for a .305 average, and stole 24 bases, an all-around performance that casts him as the heir apparent to Schmidt, who has indicated he may retire next season. Wilson, an outfielder who led the league with 20 assists, drove in 84 runs. For the third consecutive year, Samuel combined the power, batting average, and speed that have made him one of the most productive second basemen in the game.
Overall, the lineup looks stronger both offensively and defensively, while the bullpen, anchored by Steve Bedrosian (29 saves), also appears solid. But all these known quantities only accentuate the great unknown: the starting pitching.
The No. 1 man is Shane Rawley, whose change in status says it all. When Rawley arrived three years ago, he was the 28-year-old ``kid'' in a starting rotation featuring Steve Carlton, Jerry Koosman, and John Denny, and their almost 700 combined career victories. Today, Rawley heads a group that includes Don Carman, Bruce Ruffin, and Kevin Gross, who among them have logged six major league seasons and fewer than 70 wins.
Felske sees a 20-game winner in Rawley, who appeared on his way to that plateau last July when a shoulder injury ended his season at 11-7.
Gross, who led the team with 15 wins in 1985 and with 12 last season, is coming off a back injury, which further enlarges the overall pitching question mark.
Neither Carman or Ruffin joined the rotation until midway in '86, but they could sway the team's fortunes if they pick up where they left off. Carman, who spent the first half of the season in the bullpen, finished at 10-5. Ruffin came up from the minors in late June and went 9-4, with a 2.46 earned-run average.
Right now, to be sure, there's one other, much bigger name in camp: Carlton. But the four-time Cy Young Award winner's situation as a non-roster player vying for a spot only further emphasizes the change that has overtaken this staff.
Felske noncommittally says a decision on the 42-year-old left-hander, who was released last year in midseason, will be made within a week. In the past, of course, Steve would have been simply handed the ball every fourth or fifth day and asked to carry the team once again.
The main hopes for this year, though, lie with Rawley & Co. - and he knows it.
``The one thing we have to do is to prove that we can win,'' Shane says. ``If we can do that, we're as good a team as the Mets are.''
Felske sees ``everyone shooting for the Mets, which will help all of us.'' And he points to a three-game sweep of New York last September - preventing the Mets from clinching the title in Veterans Stadium - as a head start to this season.
Schmidt takes more of a ``wait-and-see'' approach. ``We're a great team, but that doesn't mean we're a world champ,'' he said. ``That'll be decided between the white lines.''
As for his own plans, Mike says he'll decide by Sept. 1 if he'll come back next year. ``We'd have to be a contending team, and I'd have to feel good physically,'' he says, adding that he is not lured by records. He will no doubt hit his 500th home run early this season, but he flatly states: ``I'll never hit 600. I'll retire before.''
If their starters can keep the Phillies in the game while they run on all offensive pistons, however, Schmidt may not have time on Sept. 1 to think about the distant future. More likely he'll be thinking about a division title, a chance for the playoffs, and the hope of making his team the only one in either league to reach the World Series three times in the 1980s.