ON THE FOURTH day of the Phillies' Great May Offensive, the wheels fell off.
Lou Piniella's vastly overrated and grossly overpaid Cubs seemed primed to be broomed and what better present for mom than a four-game winning streak by a team that has been lights out ever since GM Pat Gillick called out the moribund middle of Charlie Manuel's Ryan Howardless lineup?
But on a day when moms get lilies, the Phillies got a Lilly of their own. Ted Lilly, a gifted lefthander who carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning and raised the possibility that 43 years after Jim Bunning pitched a Father's Day perfect game against the Mets, Lilly might produce a Mother's Day gem.
Thanks to a seeing-eye single by Abraham Nunez with two outs in the fifth, the Money Pit's reputation as an upholstered phone booth was not sullied by a no-no. With the next four games against the musclebound Brew Crew it will be run-biz as usual.
In Gillick's low-key but pointed assessment of his team's ills, he also fingered the shabby bullpen and ineffective bench. Well, Manuel certainly gave his bench a major boost. Going with the tortured science of left vs. right and right vs. left, the manager left five hits, two RBI and two brilliant outfield assists on the bench a day after the Phillies' most dramatic comeback of the season. Charlie sat Greg Dobbs' 4-for-4 with a pair of key RBI in the 11-7 victory and the laser-aimed arm and windshield-wiper coverage of Shane Victorino for power-slumping Wes Helms at first and lightly played Jayson Werth in right.
I know how the game is played and has been played for a long time, but I wonder about intangibles like momentum carrying over after pulse-stirring late charges like the one the Phils mounted in the rain on Saturday. You hope everybody was wearing seat belts after 11 runs and 16 hits shriveled to one run and four hits less than 24 hours later.
Afterward, Manuel said that while he uses computer tendencies he is not bound to them.
In this case, even though he was sitting down two players so instrumental in firing a dramatic comeback, there were other considerations.
"I've got to play some of the guys off the bench, too," he said. And you saw what he was saying when he reached into the untrustworthy portion of his bullpen to get the matchup he wanted in the eighth inning of what was still a winnable game.
Manuel was hoping young lefthander Fabio Castro, a Rule 5 wonder in the second half last season, could build on what he achieved in mostly low-pressure situations. But after a sizzling winter in the Dominican Republic, highlighted by a key role on the victorious Aguilas Cibaenas team in the Caribbean Series, Castro had a personal Missile Crisis. He was terrible in spring training, not dazzling in Triple A and he has been flatter than a Presidente left in the sun since his recall to be an urgently needed lefthanded hammer.
When Manuel brought Fabio in to face injured Derrek Lee replacement Daryle Ward with the bases loaded in the ninth, Piniella countered with former Penn quarterback and jack-of-all-trades Mark DeRosa.
Castro committed the unpardonable sin of walking DeRosa to force in an insurance run.
More important relievers have earned a flight back to Triple A for less. But if anybody down there had been better than the unready Castro he would be here. Fixing the middle of this bullpen is one of those Mission Impossible jobs where there isn't a lot of help from Charlie's computer.
Of more compelling concerns to ponder after the 4-1 loss on a day when the first-place Braves were flogged by the Pirates and the second-place Mets picked up a game with another victory over the Brewers, the fans keep flocking to the Money Pit.
Yesterday's throng of 45,129 gave the Phils a sold-out weekend, the fifth sellout of the season and the fourth-largest crowd in the 4-year history of the Bank. And, no, P.T. Barnum did not say, "There's 45,129 suckers born every minute."
And why not? "This is a beautiful ballpark," said former Phils manager Jim Fregosi, super-scouting for the Braves. I suggested he would have hit 40 homers here. "I might have done that lefthanded," he amended.
Dallas Green stopped by to greet the man who orchestrated the out-of-the-blue 1993 pennant. So, that was two former Phillies managers in the house.
And when the Phils and Brewers tee it up tonight, four former Phillies skippers will be here. Nick Leyva, who was replaced by Fregosi, will be coaching third for Milwaukee. Lee Elia, who was replaced by Leyva, will be scouting for the Devil Rays.
They will be doing their baseball thing in front of a Phillies team that is now in the wind shadow of their 10,000th loss since becoming the Pastime's Ugly Betty in 1883. Yesterday's loss left them needing just 24 more to achieve onerous defeat No. X.
By playing .500 ball over the next 50 games, they should hit the tragic number somewhere around the All-Star break.
Now, here's a thought: If the Phillies are going for No. 10,000 on, say, July 13 and Barry Bonds is going for home run No. 756, where will commissioner Bud Selig go?
Choices . . . Choices.