Originally posted on Phillies Nation  |  Last updated 3/31/12

(This post was written by Phillies Nation contributor Nick McIlwain, of 93.3 WMMR in Philadelphia. He’s part of the Preston and Steve show. Check them out Monday through Friday from 5:30-10 am.)

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Leaving Clearwater is tough to do.

I’m flying back from Clearwater, leaving the 80 degree sunny weather and for some inexplicable reason, returning to Philly in March.  As I sit in 21A, looking out the left side of the plane, I can see the complex at Bright House, empty today after 3 games in the 3 days.

I saw a tie on Sunday, 3-3 against the Orioles, then a bad loss to the Red Sox on Monday, and a win in walk-off fashion yesterday, with newcomer Scott Podsednik crushing a ball to right to give the Phils a 5-4 win over the Pirates.  The Pirates rallied for 4 runs in the 8th to spoil a gem by Cliff Lee, but after Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes struggled in the 8th, Jonathan Papelbon looked commanding in the 9th and Podsednik won it in the bottom frame.

A couple highlights worth noting: Jim Thome looked like, well, Jim Thome.  I missed seeing that sweet left-handed swing in a Phillies uniform.  Who knows what kind of production we’ll get out of him this season, but he’s certainly a fan favorite, having received a number of ovations.  With injuries leading to the obvious holes on the right side of the infield, he’ll probably get more playing time than originally expected.  So is 15 to 20 HR with 50 to 60 RBI too much to ask?  Or hope for?  Perhaps he’ll end his career making Uncle Charlie proud all over again.

Red Sox Nation is just as strong as Phillies Nation. Even at Spring Training, there were tons of Sox fans in attendance.  It was easily the most crowded game of the three I attended, due in no small part to their passion.  The Sox’ season ended terribly last year and with Bobby Valentine in the dugout and less alcohol in the clubhouse, I’m sure it will be a 3-team dogfight once again in the AL East.

I never remember how much I miss baseball until I go see it live and in person.  It’s been five-plus months since the most disheartening and disappointing ending to a season since 1993, and despite the 102 wins in 2011, it’s a season that can’t be considered a success.  We’ve gotten used to winning, of course, and shouldn’t take any of it for granted.  With Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Lee at the top of the rotation, there’s no reason to be worried.  So of course, I’m worried.

Can Ryan Howard ever be Ryan Howard again?  When a big man hurts his knee or ankle or foot or Achilles or baby toe, it just takes longer to recover.  Ask any doctor.  And even if he does come back in June, does that mean he won’t get his timing back until July or August?  Where have you gone, Chase Utley?  Are your knees ok?

Regardless of the concerns, I’m incredibly excited that the season is almost here.  There’s always the start-and-stop schedule of the beginning of the season, with 6 games spread out over 9 days in Pittsburgh and south Philly.  And so it begins.

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