IN THE PERFECT WORLD all managers attempt to create for their ballclubs as Opening Day rushes at them, pitching rotations are set up with extreme care for a 162-game journey that begins in mid-spring and ends in early autumn.

It was obvious that Charlie Manuel was blowing a huge puff of smoke at 2007 Opening Day starter-setup man-closer and jack-of-all pitching trades Brett Myers, who was whiplashed out of the bullpen role he seemed to relish when Phillies GM Pat Gillick acquired premier closer Brad Lidge. With weeks to go in spring training, the wily skipper announced that Myers would open the season against the Nationals. The immediate effect was that Cole Hamels, who could outpitch Myers with his ankles taped together and a sack over his head, became the No. 2.

The rest of the rotation was a little easier to align. Jamie Moyer had a superb exhibition season and was a no-brainer for No. 3. The way Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton were cuffed around in Florida, Manuel would be praying for double-digit offense no matter which was No. 4 and 5. They figured to be the baseball equivalent of those compact spare tires you can't drive more than 50 mph.

Forty-five games into the season and the Myers, Hamels, Moyer, Eaton, Kendrick pecking order remains intact. But while the order is unchanged, the results tell a far different story.

Hamels is third in the league with 65 1/3 innings pitched and 10th in ERA with a 2.89. Myers is on Page 4 of the NL sortable stats, with a 5.91 ERA that puts him with the dregs of the league's starters. He's ranked lower than Eaton, who anchored last season's ERA list with a 6.29 and has "improved" to a svelte 5.59.

Manuel's sensible rotation should be Hamels, Kendrick, Moyer, Eaton and Myers. But as it stands, Brett will start the first game of a seven-game trip against the Nationals and Astros tonight, then the third game of the four-game series in Houston.

"We've got to fix the starting pitching," Manuel said after yesterday's 6-5 loss to the Blue Jays.

The thing is, rotations are tough to juggle. Even if Manuel were inclined to do some juggling - he is not a big radical change guy - you need a couple of open dates spaced fairly close together to change the order while still keeping five guys on their throwing days. Particularly in an era when pitch counts rule and starters are treated with the care normally accorded to rare orchids or NFL quarterbacks.

Speaking of the continued devaluation of starting pitchers, neither the two rain delays nor a supercautious Manuel did any favors for his bullpen yesterday at the rainswept Money Pit.

Kendrick warmed up, then pitched an economical 1-2-3 first inning, retiring the Blue Jays on just 12 pitches.

Prized young Toronto righthander Shaun Marcum needed 22 pitches, including a two-run Ryan Howard launch to deepest left center that gave Kendrick a 2-0 lead.

Then the predicted line of showers moved through the region, causing a 2-hour, 4-minute rain delay.

Incredibly - at least to this old-schooler - both Kendrick and Marcum were done for the afternoon. It is never useful to be into a pen that was called on for four innings by four pitchers behind Eaton's shabby outing Saturday night.

"He warmed up a couple of times," Manuel said, "but he was finished for the day after about 45 minutes [of delay]."

The 13th Phillies pitch was thrown by Chad Durbin, who didn't allow a hit until until one-man engine of destruction and human wrecking ball Rod Barajas doubled with two outs in the fifth. Last year, the Phillies' backup catcher needed 122 at-bats to drive in 10 runs. Saturday night, he needed just four to drive in five.

After Durbin came a deluge of Phillies relievers. All because Kyle Kendrick, a sturdy young man in the prime of his life, was deemed to be at risk if he had to warm up again, then add to that 12-pitch count. It was, however, kind of worth it to see the titanic, three-run pinch homer Lyle Overbay blasted off the third deck facing in deep left with two outs in the fifth to erase the 3-0 Phillies lead.

And lo and behold . . . After a 39-minute delay while a strong cold front swept through with two outs in the Phils' sixth, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons brought in staff ace Roy Halladay. And why not? It was his between-starts throwing day. He restored order at a time when the Phillies appeared to be mounting a patented comeback.

"When I saw him heading down to the bullpen," Charlie said, "I didn't figure he was delivering a message."

Manuel's fourth pitcher of the long day's journey through the Flyers game and past the cocktail hour was J.C. Romero, pitching on the wrong end of the score for the second straight game. He was followed by Clay Condrey and, sigh, Brad Lidge, pitcher No. 6. An unhittable slider is a terrible thing to waste . . .

Now here's a creative thought. Kendrick's throw day should be Wednesday in Washington. The kid should be strong as Big Brown. Hope bullpen catcher Ramon Hernandez is wearing a sponge inside his mitt. How about Charlie taking a little strain off the bullpen by using Kendrick the way Gibbons used his ace yesterday for a valuable hold in a victory that gave the Phils' spring-training neighbor the rubber game in Phase I of interleague play?

"We definitely could do that," the manager said, which sounds like a "yes." *

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