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Phillies' window may be closing

PHILADELPHIA -- There was something familiar about the called third strike to end the Phillies' season.

It didn't have the same cartoon break as its predecessor -- the Bugs Bunny curveball Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright used to freeze Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran for the final out of the 2006 NLCS -- but Giants closer Brian Wilson paralyzed Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard just the same in the battle of a power righty arm facing a highly paid slugger in the lefthanded batter's box.

Wilson's cutter broke down but not quite out of the strike zone to catch Howard looking, securing a 3-2 win and the Giants' first trip to the World Series since 2002. It simultaneously ended the Phillies' chance to return to the Fall Classic for a third straight year.

As the pitch crossed the plate, home-plate umpire Tom Hallion paused for a fleeting moment and then rung up Howard, who in turn swiveled toward Hallion, allowed a defeatist shrug and stood there, stunned.

"I thought the pitch was down," Howard said. "[The umpire] kind of paused before he made the call. That's a tough way to end the season and end the game. To me, if you're going to call it, call it."

Here's another call: The Phillies are no lock to return to a fifth straight playoffs next season, no matter how good their team already looks on paper. While there's no reason to think the Phillies will carom off the same cliff as the Mets -- after Wainwright struck out Beltran, they endured historic late-season collapses in 2007 and '08 and even more embarrassing performances in '09 and '10 -- Philadelphia may be entering more of a critical juncture than it's expecting.

The core of stars will need to stay healthy to keep the Phillies' run going -- and a few more pieces will need to be added.

In Citizens Bank Park's home clubhouse after the game, the players took turns giving credit to the Giants for winning the series and explaining how difficult the season was at times, given how many injuries the team endured.

"The biggest thing is that we have the same team, pretty much, going into next year," said starter Roy Oswalt, who got a no-decision after throwing six innings and allowing two runs (one earned).

It of course was no fluke that the Phillies finished the season 27-8 in their final 35 games. When they are at their best, they are the class of the National League. This year they even had the best record in the majors. But there are some warning signs that their window of opportunity is closing.

The star offensive players may not be able to duplicate their success from the past few seasons; the team needs a righthanded power bat; the bullpen needs to be redone; the rotation after the three aces could use some help; and then there's the bench.

This season the offense scored 772 runs, its fewest since 2002. In the series with the Giants, the Phillies went 8-for-45 with runners in scoring position, emblematic of some of its often sporadic offense during the year.

"It's definitely frustrating," Howard said. "We didn't play to our full potential, and we know that. I'm not going to say we overachieved. I'm saying we overcame."

Howard, who didn't have an RBI in the NLCS, was one of those injured players, going on the disabled list with an ankle injury. He still played 143 games and hit 31 home runs with 108 RBIs -- both totals the lowest of his five full big-league seasons by a considerable margin -- and saw a significant dip in his slugging percentage too. Those are obviously still very good statistics, but he'll turn 31 in November, will make $20 million next season and only in 2012 does he begin collecting on his five-year, $125-million mega contract, a deal that already feels like it will be disproportionately large.

Once center fielder Shane Victorino turns 30 next month, all eight current starting position players will be in their fourth decade. The one likely change will be in right field, as Jayson Werth is expected to take his talents to the highest bidder in free agency. The Phillies have phenom prospect Domonic Brown waiting to take over, but he has only 70 major-league plate appearances. The starting lineup will likely have seven veterans either nearing the end of their prime or already a bit past it, and then one rookie who may need a year or two to hit his stride.

Perhaps more importantly is that the Phillies won't have a notable right-handed power bat if he leaves. Third baseman Placido Polanco and catcher Carlos Ruiz are fine hitters but not the middle-of-the-order sluggers the team needs to break up its lefties of Chase Utley, Raul Ibañez and Howard. In the past three seasons, the Phillies have hit 356 left-handed home runs and only 248 right-handed. Werth hit 87 of those 248, accounting for 35.1 percent of that total.

Then there's the bullpen. While Ryan Madson was excellent all year -- even if he was the losing pitcher in NLCS Game 5 after allowing a solo home run to Juan Uribe in his second inning of relief -- the rest of the relieving corps was only middling, ranking 17th in the majors with a 3.98 ERA. Closer Brad Lidge hasn't been steady for two years now, and there are few other reliable options at Charlie Manuel's disposal. That's why Madson was pitching a second inning against San Francisco.

Philosophically, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has worked to maintain a balanced system from top to bottom, so that the franchise will continue to compete for years to come, rather than place too much emphasis on any single season. That was the whole point of trading Cliff Lee before the season, to re-stock the deck with young talent. In spring training, however, one general manager privately praised the idea of the trade but blasted its execution, saying the Phillies overvalued the prospects they received.

And then Amaro still had to make a deadline deal, shipping some young players for Oswalt to shore up the rotation anyway. The Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt triumvirate is formidable, but the fourth and fifth spots aren't spectacular. Joe Blanton is an adequate back-of-the-staff starter in the NL but is overpaid at $8 million per year.

The bench may be the Phillies' most glaring weakness. In 10 pinch-hit appearances in the NLCS, Philadelphia's bench players went 0-for-9 with a walk. On Saturday night Ben Francisco was unable to drive home a run from third with less than two outs. The cadre of Francisco, Greg Dobbs, Ross Gload and Wilson Valdez provide little to no offensive punch. Valdez was a capable backup during the extended absences of Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, but that's more for his fielding than his offense, which included a very low .306 on-base percentage.

Amaro needs to improve some of these complimentary pieces this offseason. The hard part is already out of the way, as the Phillies have assembled a great core of players, but he needs to make sure the stars have more support around them, perhaps even at some expense of the future. The Phillies learned the hard way what can happen when they have to play without their big guns.

The Braves already gave Philadelphia a strong run for the NL East this season, and as long as they respond well to new manager Fredi Gonzalez, ought to keep moving forward, making staying on top a difficult chore for the Phillies.

For the first time in three years, the Phillies' offseason has already begun while baseball is still being played. And they've got some work to do.