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National League Preview from The Sports Network



Thursday, April 5th (All times Eastern)

Philadelphia Phillies (0-0) at Pittsburgh Pirates (0-0), 1:35 p.m.

Probable Starting Pitchers: Philadelphia - Roy Halladay (0-0, 0.00) Pittsburgh - Erik Bedard (0-0, 0.00)

(Sports Network) - For a team that has won five straight National League East titles and is coming of a year that saw them win 102 games the Philadelphia Phillies certainly have a number of concerns entering the 2012 season.

Their quest for a sixth straight division crown starts this afternoon when they open a three-game season-opening set with the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

The Phillies, though, go into the season with their top two offensive weapons on the bench, as Ryan Howard continues to recover from a ruptured Achilles' tendon suffered while making the final out in the NLDS and Chase Utley begins the year on the disabled list with a knee injury for the second straight season.

Philadelphia has posted the best record in the NL over the past five seasons, going 558-414, and has improved its win total in each campaign. However, success in the regular season has been met with disappointment in the postseason.

Such was the case last year when the heavily favored Phils fell in five games to eventual world champion St. Louis, as ace Roy Halladay was outdueled by Chris Carpenter.

Not surprising, Philadelphia had one of its bigger turnovers during its five- year run of success. The Phillies parted ways with free agents Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Roy Oswalt while also trading away backup infielder Wilson Valdez.

The Phillies did have their usual big catch over the winter, adding former Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon to the mix, but the rest of the moves were designed to fill in for injuries that have already inflicted the roster.

Philadelphia knew it was going to start the season without Howard, so the club traded for corner infielder Ty Wigginton and signed veteran Jim Thome. With the exit of Ibanez, the Phillies also added Laynce Nix to share left field with John Mayberry Jr.

Philly also kept a homegrown favorite in former MVP Jimmy Rollins, re-signing the 33-year-old shortstop to a three-year, $33 million contract with an option for a fourth season.

Rollins will be one of the players expected to step up in the absence of Howard, who may return in May but appears more likely destined for a season debut in June.

One area where the team has no concerns is Halladay, who put forth another terrific season last year for the Phils. Halladay followed up his spectacular Cy Young Award winning season of 2010 by going 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA and eight complete games.

This will be the talented right-hander's 10th straight Opening Day assignment.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, teased the baseball world last season when it went into the All-Star break holding a one-game lead atop the National League Central.

Forget the fact that the Pirates actually looked like they were going to post their first winning season since 1992 when it was seven games above .500 at one point, this was a squad that resembled a playoff team, holding sole possession of first place in the division as late as July 19.

But, everything changed on the night of July 26 when one of the worst calls you'll ever see caused them to lose a six-hour, 19-inning marathon in Atlanta.

On the surface it was just another loss, but the Pirates went onto lose 10 of their next 11 games and won only 18 of the season's final 59 games, extending the longest North American professional sports record for losing seasons.

So, what was once a feel-good story turned into yet another typical baseball season in the Steel City, as the Pirates stumbled their way to a 72-90 finish.

The 72 wins were the most for the team since 2003, so that's something to build on right?

Aside from all the losing in the second half, there were some glimmers of hope. Like outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who took a giant leap and took his place as one of the best young players in the game. However, third baseman Pedro Alvarez took a huge step back, but should he rebound this year and start to realize that vast potential there may actually be some meaningful baseball in Pittsburgh this year.

The team went out and added starting pitchers A.J. Burnett, who fractured an orbital bone early on in spring training, and Erik Bedard, who will get the call today.

The oft-injured Bedard, who will be starting on Opening Day for the third time in his career, but first since 2008, split last season between Seattle and Boston, making 24 starts and going 5-9 with a 3.62 ERA. It was the most starts he had made since opening 28 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 2007.

Philadelphia won four of its six matchups with the Pirates last season.

04/05 10:34:30 ET