WASHINGTON - It wasn't as if Brett Myers were taking a test or anything,

although as he stepped to the mound to face Nationals leadoff hitter Felipe Lopez it sort of had that feel to it.

It's hardly a secret that Myers hasn't been close to what the Phillies were hoping for this season, especially in his last two abysmal starts. It goes without saying that they will be a better team if he can recapture the mojo he had last year after he moved to the bullpen, a dominance that climaxed with him throwing his glove high into the late-September air on the final day of the regular season as a packed house at Citizens Bank Park cheered itself hoarse.

That seemed like another lifetime when Myers made his 10th start of the season last night at Nationals Park. And when the grades were posted a couple of hours later . . .

Myers pitched better. Which isn't the same as saying he pitched well.

Instead, he answered the question with a question, an ink-blot test on which the observer can project whatever he chooses.

Charlie Manuel, naturally, looked at it through Phillies-colored glasses. "He pitched good enough to win if we scored some runs," the manager said after the Fightins dropped their third straight, 4-0, to the Nationals.

Manuel had some evidence to back him that point of view. Myers lasted six innings. In his first nine starts of the year, he went beyond five just four times. His fastball hit 91 and 92 mph, according to the scoreboard radar. And since he allowed just three runs, he met the minimum requirement for just his third quality start of the season.

Still, it would be a mistake to go overboard. He also allowed 11 baserunners (eight hits, three walks). He didn't have an inning when he retired the side in order.

And, to be honest, he wasn't facing the most potent lineup on the planet. The Nationals went into last night ranked last in the league in batting average, total bases, and slugging percentage; next to last in on-base percentage; 14th in runs and 13th in homers.

The big righthander reflected that ambivalence. "So-so," he said when asked to assess his performance. "I'm still trying to find it. I got out of some jams I shouldn't have been in."

Myers is now 2-5. The Phillies are 3-7 in his starts. They are 21-15 in all other games. So it's logical to focus just on what he's doing. It's not always that simple, though.

You can look at a plate of food and see turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and peas. Or you can see Thanksgiving dinner.

Trying to assess a baseball team is sort of like that. It's possible to break the Phillies down into the bullpen (terrific), the offense (disappointing) and the starting pitching (below average except when Cole Hamels starts) and draw certain conclusions that are completely true and miss the bigger picture at the same time.

Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. alluded to that before the game. Sitting in the dugout, he answered a question about the rotation by talking about the lineup. His point was that while the prototypical championship team is built around strong starters, the Phillies are constructed differently. They are built to outscore the opposition.

So while it's obviously important for Myers and the other starters to find themselves, their outings don't exist in a vacuum.

"I think offensively we're going to be OK, but we have to start swinging the bat better. We should be scoring a lot more runs. If we swing the bats better, it will take some heat off the pitchers," Amaro noted tellingly.

The fact is, most often, pitching and hitting go together like a hand in a batting glove. When the balance gets out of whack, the side of the equation that has been having some success almost always eventually feels the impact.

If the pitchers are struggling, the hitters will have a tendency to begin trying to hit grand slams with nobody on base.

When the hitters are in a slump, the pitcher can't help but begin to think that he has little margin for error and that every pitch has to be perfect. That usually results in falling behind having to throw fastballs into the happy zone on hitters' counts.

Myers would never admit it, but the offense didn't make it easy for him last night. He couldn't have been unaware that his teammates were going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position in the first four innings against Tim Redding.

"It's my job to go out there and match what the other pitcher does. And I didn't do that," he said. "We had him on the ropes and he got out of it. They had me on the ropes and I didn't always get out of it."

Ya gotta believe the offense will start clicking at some point. When that happens, it will take some pressure off all the starters.

As for Myers, chalk up last night as one small, tentative step in the right direction. *

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