Your breath isn't quite as bated. Anticipation has yielded ground to trepidation.

The week the Phillies are scheduled to come north, their fortunes seem to be headed due south. The summer of the aces has been preceded, maybe preempted, by the spring of the aches.

Chase Utley's knee, Brad Lidge's shoulder, Placido Polanco's elbow. When that line drive dropped Roy Oswalt last week, it knocked all of Philadelphia down. What a pain in the neck.

The red pinstriped angel on your left shoulder keeps whispering: Relax. It's a long season. This team knows how to win. By October, when Roy and Roy and Cliff and Cole are lined up to pitch the first four games of the World Series, this will all seem like a vague memory.

The road-gray devil on your MRI-bound right shoulder has the weight of too much Phillies history on his side: You fool! Getting your hopes up! You should know better. Expect the worst and you won't get your heart broken again.

The angel is right, of course. The baseball season is long enough that Utley could return and win the most valuable player award, that Lidge could be hugging Carlos Ruiz after getting the final out of another championship season. Other than their uniforms, the Phillies of the last five years bear no resemblance to their bumbling forefathers.

Ah, but the devil has been calling the shots in this sports town for decades. It is undeniable that Phillies championships are once-in-a-generation events - if your generation is lucky, that is. Surely the glory and joy of 2008 will cost us years of misery and pain. Is it not inevitable that your "World F. Champions" T turns into a hair shirt?

Most of us dwell between the extremes, where reason rules and perspective is possible. From here, there is legitimate concern. Injuries are always the X factor. No matter how talented or well-constructed a team, it can fall apart if key players get hurt.

Utley, the second baseman and irreplaceable element in this team's chemical makeup, and Lidge, the only proven closer in the entire organization, are key players. They are going to be on the disabled list when this most eagerly awaited season finally opens Friday at Citizens Bank Park. Polanco, the reliable third baseman, will be in the lineup, but his surgically repaired elbow will be watched closely.

Meanwhile, the general sense of impending doom was heightened by the line drive that felled Oswalt and the outfield collision that bloodied centerfielder Shane Victorino. It appears both of those players will be fine, but still - how many grim dispatches from Clearwater were we supposed to process in one week?

The Utley situation is the unspotted iceberg capable of sinking the fine ship built by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. The hull was designed to withstand one hole - that left by the departure of rightfielder Jayson Werth - but not a second one of this size. Manager Charlie Manuel's challenge was to replace Werth's production from the No. 5 spot. Replacing Utley in the all-important No. 3 hole was not on the to-do list until that nagging pain in his knee refused to go away on its own.

The irony in all this is that the Phillies' best hope for surviving the injuries could also prove to be their undoing.

That's right. The Four Aces.

The superb rotation - Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton - gives the Phillies an edge at the start of nearly every game they will play. That is a remarkable thing, and it could paper over a lot of problems.

But the December acquisition of Lee, which started the civic countdown to the most anticipated opening day in history, had another consequence. His contract meant the Phillies were committed to paying their five starters some $65 million in 2011. Throw in Lidge's $11.5 million and that's $76.5 million for half the pitching staff. That's more than the total payroll of 10 major-league clubs this year before Ryan Howard, Utley, and Jimmy Rollins get a dime.

And they will get plenty of dimes. The Phillies' total payroll is pushing $160 million. They are, as Amaro put it last week, "tapped out."

Given the importance of pitching - as demonstrated so dramatically in the National League Championship Series loss to San Francisco - Amaro's quest to build the best rotation in baseball made perfect sense.

Given the cost, however, that rotation might just handcuff the GM, preventing the kind of aggressive moves he might want to make to fill those suddenly worrisome holes in his lineup.

Did Amaro paint himself into a corner with guys who paint the corners?

It is a fascinating position to be in, one that has introduced anxiety and suspense into a season that looked like a joyride. Once, we awaited opening day with bated breath. Now, we're just holding our breath, trying to ignore the devil on our shoulder.

Phil Sheridan:

There's no need to panic, except . . . Bill Lyon, C1.

Around The Horn: Phillies preview. Sports, Section D.

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