IN THE WHOLE, entire history of major league baseball, only 31 other pitchers have been afforded the privilege that the Phillies have afforded to Adam Eaton this season. That is, they have been allowed to start at least 24 games in a season despite recording an earned run average of 6.36 or higher.

Only 31 besides Eaton, and 30 of them played for losing teams, and many of those 30 played for godawful teams.

Almost never is a good team so patient in the face of such ineptitude. Almost never.

That is the point here, as the Phillies try to decide whether to put themselves out of their misery and yank Eaton from the starting rotation. That is the point, that they are already late.

After a Saturday-night disaster from Eaton, and a night to sleep on it, Phils manager Charlie Manuel said before last night's 5-3 win over the Braves, "I haven't made up my mind yet. I've got time."

To be fair, the body language and the tone of voice all suggest that Eaton might not be making his next scheduled start on Friday night in Pittsburgh. Manuel did not say that - it's just a feeling based on how Manuel sounded last week on the same subject and how he sounded last night.

Between then and now came Saturday night: three innings, six earned runs, ouch. The whole thing has become a disaster, as Eaton knows as well as anyone. He was widely quoted after the game acknowledging the obvious: "If I just pitched the way I'm capable of, we'd be in first place."

But he hasn't, and they aren't, and it is time for a decision. It is past time. If that means J.D. Durbin takes Eaton's place, at least for a little while, so be it. If that means general manager Pat Gillick shakes somebody else loose from parts unknown, fine.

But they owe it to everyone to do something here, at least temporarily - to a bullpen that gets used up every time Eaton pitches; to a lineup that needs to be issued excavation tools every time Eaton buries them early. It is just becoming too hard, and it isn't getting any better.

"We want it to be consistent and we want to put the best team on the field we possibly can," Manuel said.

That is true, but also beside the point. None of us can stand here and say we know for sure that Durbin or some mystery guest will be better than Eaton. But they have to find out.

It goes without saying that just about every other team in the middle of a postseason run has made this decision

already. Only one playoff team, the 2000 Yankees, allowed a starter to pitch so badly for so long (David Cone, 29 starts, 6.91 ERA). Nobody else tried it. No other winning team tried it, not until the 2007 Phillies came along. Why? Because the drag on everyone is just too great.

That the Phillies have been unable to pull the plug here tells you plenty about how Eaton represents a major chunk of what Gillick's offseason was supposed to have been about, and about how the Phillies still owe Eaton more than $16 million over the next two seasons, and about how Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia went up in flames and put everybody in a bind.

None of that matters now, though. Eaton has ability, and he can still contribute what he can out of the bullpen, and maybe he can straighten himself out and return to the rotation. If he can't, next year is next year - they can put him back in the rotation then, and with a fresh start.

But here and now, time's up. If you don't think so, think back and consider the case of poor, poor, pitiful Paul Abbott. Remember how he somehow was allowed to start 10 games for the 2004 Phillies?

Remember how we all persecuted then-GM Ed Wade for sticking with Abbott for so long, how we all said he was sabotaging the team's postseason hopes?

Remember all of that?

Well, Abbott's ERA was 6.24. Eaton's is worse, and he has been allowed to start more than twice as many games. It is time. It is past time.

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Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.