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UNLIKE RAYS, PHILLIES FIND WAY BACK

Philadelphia started '09 slow, too, but the team recovered to reach the World Series again.

Coming off an unexpected World Series appearance was tough. There were the distractions that accompany success. Something of a championship season hangover. A slow start. An unsettled bullpen. Some new faces to integrate. Inconsistent starting pitching. Off-field issues.

For the Rays, well, you know how that turned out. They couldn't handle it, missing the playoffs and going home early.

The Phillies experienced much the same - and even worse with the stunning passing of team broadcast legend Harry Kalas - but they're going back to the World Series again, starting Wednesday.

"To be able to make it to this point again, definitely something very special, because a World Series isn't guaranteed to anybody," NLCS MVP Ryan Howard said.

"It was just everybody's mind-set. We've got the same group of guys coming back, and we know what we're capable of; it's just a matter of us playing our game and going out there and doing it. I think it was that little underlying expectation that we had for ourselves, that, hey, we know we can get back there and try and win it again."

The Phillies won because they're a good team stacked with talented players, and that's most important. But listening to their explanations in the champagne- and beer-soaked clubhouse after Wednesday's clincher, it sounded as if they were fully prepared for the challenges - mentally as much as physically - of repeating.

"We play to win, no matter what the circumstances are," starting pitcher Cole Hamels said. "That's who we are."

Their veterans spoke of the confidence, belief and determination that sets them apart. "Strong-willed," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "A lot of fearlessness," Dodgers manager Joe Torre observed.

"It would have been really easy, after winning the World Series, to come in this spring and set the cruise control and say, 'Hey, we've already won. So we'll go play and whatever happens, happens,'" injured starting pitcher and team sage Jamie Moyer told ESPN's Jayson Stark. "But this team never did that."

"Maybe some teams have success, and they forget how hard it is to get there. Maybe they feel like what happened last year is supposed to happen again," Rollins said. "Nuh-uh. You're supposed to make it happen again. But to do that, you're going to be tested."

And they were.

Like the Rays, who blame their 9-14 April for much of their trouble, the Phillies got off to a slow start - they were 5-1/2 games back 10 games into the season, had a losing record through 15, were still at .500 (16-16) in mid May and just two games over (39-37) into July. Closer Brad Lidge lost his mojo, the rotation had some major flaws, and the offense wasn't clicking. April 13 brought the staggering news that Kalas, the voice of the franchise, died shortly before a game in Washington.

In some ways, manager Charlie Manuel said, his fifth season was his toughest, talking about the bullpen breakdowns, the distractions of the early season ceremonies, the impact of Kalas' death, all issues, though they finished with 93 wins and a third straight NL East Division title.

"Some of the things that we had to overcome, especially up until the All-Star break, I think that we made it through," Manuel said. "And we ended up pretty good in the second half, and that's why we're standing here today."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

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