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Phils quietly gaining steam

Six analysts for Baseball Tonight independently were asked on Dec. 11 to name the most improved team in baseball this offseason. All six named the Phillies. "Oh, great,'' Phils manager Larry Bowa said, jokingly. "A little more pressure, that's just what I need.''

He laughed again, the confident laugh of a man who knows, finally, that he has the necessary pieces to win. Since the end of the 2003 season, the Phillies have acquired closer Billy Wagner, set-up man/closer Tim Worrell, reliever Roberto Hernandez and a potential front of the rotation starter in Eric Milton. Surprisingly, they took a chance by offering pitcher Kevin Millwood salary arbitration, and they hope he'll accept it by Friday's deadline.

As Phillies general manager Ed Wade pulled off each deal, Bowa's eyes got wider and wider. "Eddie has brought up two names in the last two years ... the first was (Jim) Thome. The second was Billy Wagner,'' Bowa said. "He looked at me and said 'what do you think of Billy Wagner?' He had the same look in his eye as Thome. I mean, Billy Wagner. With (Eric) Gagne and (John) Smoltz, those are the three best closers in our league.''

The Phillies failed to make the playoffs last year largely because their bullpen failed them. With Wagner, the end of the game is in much better hands than with Jose Mesa. Worrell did a marvelous job closing for the Giants last year, and did an equally good job setting up for Robb Nen the year before. It has been obvious since the Nasty Boys of the 1990 Reds that teams with a good bullpen always have a chance to win in October. Now the Phillies have one of the best bullpens in the game.

"One thing we can do,'' said Bowa, "is establish roles out of the pen before we break camp. That will be a really nice feeling to have.''

The starting rotation has a chance to be terrific if Millwood accepts arbitration by Friday's deadline, which appears to be a good possibility. Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers and Milton potentially could be as good a starting five as there is in the league. "We've never had this kind of depth,'' Bowa said. "If Myers is your fourth or fifth starter, that's pretty good.''

Despite all that pitching, the Phillies won't be a dominant team without a comeback from left fielder Pat Burrell. He was supposed to be one of the game's best power hitters; instead, he labored last season from the first day until the last. He got so much advice from so many people, he got lost mentally. Bowa dropped him down in the order many times, but, one Phillie said, "wherever we hit him, sixth, seventh, he always came up with the bases loaded.''

When Thome really started to heat up in the second half last year, Burrell was so anxious to join him in the power parade, he pressed more. His comeback is important because the Phillies need him to hit between two left-handed hitters, Bobby Abreu and Thome.

If Burrell bounces back, third baseman David Bell has a healthy season, center fielder Marlon Byrd continues his forward movement and Bowa doesn't expect too much from Jimmy Rollins (he's not the Marlins' Juan Pierre), the Phillies have a chance to be a marvelous team. If everything works out, including the signing of Millwood, the Phillies could be the team to beat in the National League.

"I like pressure,'' Bowa said. What he likes even more is knowing he has what it takes to win, especially when he's got a lead after seven innings.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.