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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H13

The Phillies were supposed to contend in each of the last two seasons, ever since Jim Thome arrived from Cleveland, toting his big bat. But in four years under Manager Larry Bowa, they never won more than 86 games. The blame, fairly or not, largely landed on Bowa, the eternally intense presence in the clubhouse.

Enter new manager Charlie Manuel, who was hired, at least in part, because he never stops smiling. Will he be the answer? More important will probably be the retooled rotation, which made just one veteran addition in Jon Lieber. Though he's unlikely to return to his 20-win form of 2001, he keeps his defense alert. In 317 2/3 innings over the past two seasons, he's walked just 30 batters.

The rest of the rotation is a tad shaky, though club officials believe it could develop into a strength. None of the other members was better than .500 last season. Vincente Padilla was injured all spring. And the Phillies expect a huge leap forward from Brett Myers, who went 11-11 with a 5.52 ERA last season. The closing situation is stable with Billy Wagner, who throws harder than any lefty this side of Randy Johnson.

Offensively, the key might be Pat Burrell, who's a bundle of unrealized potential. He still draws walks and gets on base, but since his 37-homer, 116-RBI season of 2002, he's disappeared. Mike Lieberthal (just 61 RBI) also needs to bounce back. And defensively, 37-year-old Kenny Lofton can't get to the gaps in center like he once did.

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