By Sean McAdam
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's difficult to assign too much significance to spring training games, with their casual atmosphere, patchwork lineups and wholesale mid-game substitutions.
But that didn't stop some from viewing Thursday's Phillies-Red Sox Grapefruit League meeting as a potential sneak preview of the 2011 World Series.
Those people, apparently, didn't get the memo to Terry Francona.
"Who are we playing today?'' Francona asked reporters gathered for his morning media briefing.
It could be that Francona was having some fun with the hype. Or his ignorance could have been genuine.
Either way, it didn't take away from the pregame talk. The Phillies were good enough to get to the NLCS and though they fell shy of reaching their third straight World Series (they won in 2008, and lost to the Yankees in 2009), adding lefty ace Cliff Lee in the off-season has made them the prohibitive favorites in the National League.
Similarly, the Red Sox' offseason acquisition spree has positioned them as the American League team to beat.
As might be expected for a team traveling 2 12 hours on a bus, the Phils didn't field their 'A' team against the Red Sox. In fact, of the players who made the trek, only outfielders Ben Francisco and Shane Victorino will be in Philadelphia's Opening Day lineup.
Still, this wasn't about March. This was about thinking ahead to October and what could be. And while neither team was silly enough to proclaim itself likely pennant winners, the Sox and Phils weren't shy about praising one another.
"We might see this matchup in the World Series," agreed Phils manager Charlie Manuel. "But at the same time, it's like anything else: you've got to go out there and play. Expectations are high and I'm sure that's good. I look at it as good.
"I like to think that, after the last four or five years, expectations on our guys are kind of what they put on themselves. The World Series is where we want to go. I know Terry Francona - I was his hitting coach at one time. And I know that's where he wants to go. Basically, I imagine our thinking is kind of alike.
"It's actually what the players think and what they expect of each other and the team. High expectations from the media and the fans is absolutely great. But you still have to go out there and play and you've got to play the best baseball."
Phils general manager Ruben Amaro went a step further.
"Boston is the best club in baseball I think,'' he said. "Their combination of speed, power, pitching and bullpen -- they're a hell of a ballclub. They don't have a lot of holes."
In adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox might have given themselves the best lineup in either league. Meanwhile, the Phils added Lee to a rotation which already boasted Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, forming the game's most talented collection of starters.
Francona was ecstatic when Lee chose the Phillies over other suitors. Then again, he had his own team's interest in mind.
"I was glad, but I think everybody kind of thought it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to go to the Yankees,'' Francona said. "And if he didn't go to the Yankees, he was going to Texas. They're both in our league and one's in our division, so I was really glad. Facing Cliff once in interleague's a lot better than facing him four or five times a season."
The Sox and Phils have met in interleague play every year but one since 2003 and will play a three-game set this season in Philadelphia in the final week of June.
That meeting itself is almost four months away. But on a beautiful March morning, if you tried hard, you could almost see all the way to October.