THE GOOD NEWS is that Shane Victorino is back to full speed. "I never ran so fast from centerfield,'' he said of his public meltdown yesterday. "I felt like when we won the World Series and I ran into the pile.''

Now before you all start booing again, he was joking, trying to lighten the mood of a mostly empty and ornery Phillies clubhouse after yesterday's 12-3 loss to the Marlins shrunk their lead in the National League East to four games.

"A lot of us in here were embarrassed by the way we played,'' the Phillies' centerfielder said after the Marlins' three-game sweep. "I don't know if I maybe had a big part in that . . . ''

That seemed to be the theme late yesterday afternoon, after Victorino's seventh-inning ejection - which came after he repeatedly protested Ed Rapuano's ball call from 250 feet away - triggered a wild scene at home plate, a boofest in the stands, and a six-run rally by the Fish.

"I can tell you this,'' said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "I was upset by the way we played today. I thought we lost our composure and did things we don't normally do. We can do much better. We're not the team you saw on the field today.''

Manuel said as much to the team for more than 20 minutes afterward, but lately the evidence suggests otherwise. The Phillies are and always have been a cauldron of inconsistency, and it should be noted that they still have a larger lead and slightly better winning percentage than they did a year ago.

But their payroll is larger than it was then, comparable to that of the Red Sox these days, and more than double that of the Marlins. Their credibility and respect, built through last year's championship run, gets eroded with efforts like yesterday's.

Respect the champions?

Respect yourselves.

Manuel's postgame comments to his team were along these lines, although more motivational than tongue-lashing. Still, when the media entered the room a good 40 minutes after the game, Victorino still appeared peeved, ready to rumble, as if singled out. But then he gathered himself in the off-limits room and came out, issued a couple-dozen mea culpas, expressed his undying love for Rapuano and said, finally:

"I hope I don't get too big of a suspension. I hope I don't get a suspension at all. I had no intention of touching Ed.''

That would be little consolation to Phillies catcher Paul Bako, who had the unenviable task of positioning his body between Rapuano and a Flyin' Hawaiian in full flight. Bako was swatted away, but he stalled Victorino just long enough for additional Phillies to get between him and Rapuano, who moments before had issued his ejection from the middle of the infield grass.

"Things got built up from the previous inning,'' Victorino said.

With two on and two outs in the bottom of the sixth and the Phillies trailing just 3-1, Ryan Howard was called out on a 3-2 fastball from Josh Johnson that hit the catcher's glove just below his knees. Howard harped loudly and long, and Rapuano took it. Rated one of the game's best by players in a 2003 Sports Illustrated survey, the umpire even explained to Howard that he thought the ball crossed the plate at the knees before dipping down.

Rodrigo Lopez faced Wes Helms to begin the seventh inning. Two quick strikes were followed by another borderline pitch, this time called a ball.

That's when Victorino's arms started bouncing up and down in center. Jimmy Rollins was doing a little Johnny Drama himself at short, but Rapuano only saw Victorino. The umpire stepped forward, gestured for Victorino to stop; when he flapped a few more times, Rapuano tossed him.

"He's right in the line of sight and he's out in front of everybody, waving his arms in disgust of a pitch that I called,'' Rapuano said. "It is very simple. And Charlie agreed with me.''

Manuel denied that, although his conversations with Rapuano afterward were decidedly civil.

"I'll stand up for my players,'' he said. "I always have and I always will. But at the same time, I saw what Shane was doing . . . I saw him jumping up and down and stuff.''

What 45,169 saw . . . well, they weren't sure what they saw. They booed Rapuano mercilessly after that, of course, but as the score rolled up and the home team's misplays did too, he was hardly alone. After replacing Victorino, Jayson Werth overran a ball with the bases loaded and later threw wildly to home. When Rapuano punched out Werth for the second out of the eighth, it was impossible to tell who they were booing, Rapuano or Werth.

Or the Phillies in general.

"It was just a tough weekend overall,'' Victorino said. "I don't know if we took it for granted that the Marlins were playing bad. We kind of went out there with that approach. Not saying we didn't want to win, and I hold myself accountable in that we did not play up to our potential.''

"I've said it before,'' Manuel said. "We can have a seven-game lead with 55 games left and you can lose it. You have to go out and play the way you know how to play.''

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