HOUSTON - When Adam Eaton opened the season with three straight quality starts, the Phillies let themselves hope that he might have put his terrible - 6.29 earned run average - 2007 season behind him, that he might at least be an adequate fifth starter.

In a half-dozen trips to the mound since, however, it's been pretty much the same old stuff. In those games, he has allowed 49 baserunners in 28 2/3 innings. He has lasted more than five innings just once. He has a 6.59 ERA.

So as Eaton prepares to make his 10th start of the season, and the 40th of his Phillies career, tonight against the Astros at Minute Maid Park, it's fair to ask how much longer an organization that is trying to defend its division title can continue to send him out there every fifth day if he doesn't start to show some improvement.

"Sooner or later, we've got to get some wins out of his slot," manager Charlie Manuel said, choosing his words carefully. "We need to see something. We need to start winning some of his games.

"And I think Adam definitely knows that."

Eaton is 0-2. The Phillies are 4-5 in his starts, but the fact that he doesn't pitch deeper into games puts a strain on the bullpen.

That obviously isn't what the Phillies expected when they gave him a 3-year, $24.5 million contract. And the fact that he still is guaranteed about $14 million is a big reason why he has been given as much rope as he has.

The other factor, though, is that there are apparently no viable alternatives at the moment.

Kris Benson, who was signed as a possible option, is still in extended spring. He pitched four innings yesterday with a fastball that averaged in the mid-80s and will throw again next Tuesday.

The team's baseball people have made several pilgrimages to Lehigh Valley, but haven't seen any IronPigs pitchers they believe would be an improvement. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo is 4-1, 1.82 in nine starts between Class A Clearwater and Double A Reading, but is only 22. Carlos Carrasco is 3-4, 3.44 for the R-Phils but is just 21.

The Phillies talked about Julian Tavarez after the Red Sox designated him for assignment, but decided against pursuing him. And teams aren't likely to consider dealing decent pitching until much closer to the July 31 deadline.

So the Phillies continue to stick with Eaton. The question remains how much longer they can afford to do that if he doesn't start showing some improvement.

Save at home

Brad Lidge returned to Minute Maid Park yesterday for the first time since the Astros traded him to the Phillies last November.

"I knew when we were coming," he said with a smile.

Lidge was a fan favorite in Houston after establishing himself as the team's closer in 2004. After blowing a save in the 2005 NLCS against the Cardinals when he gave up a massive home run to Albert Pujols, though, his career took a turn for the worse. His earned run average ballooned to 5.28 the following season and he found himself the target of boos.

When he came into last night's game to try to nail down the Phillies' 7-5 win in the ninth, he was greeted with a mixture of cheers and jeers.

"I'm not as concerned anymore and it probably helped," he said after getting the save. "There was a time I was concerned with what the Houston fans said or did. But not anymore. I guess it's official that part of my career is over. I'm a Phillie now."

Lidge said he's been treated well at Citizens Bank Park.

"When you're out there pitching badly, you're going to get booed. When you pitch good, you're going to get cheered," he said. "In the past when I was struggling, I think I was trying to prove there was nothing wrong with me and got out of my game a little bit.

"But I'd rather have fans who are passionate and involved in the game. I can feed off that. Right now I'm probably pitching the best I have in my career."

Lidge didn't face the Astros when they came to Citizens Bank Park earlier this season, and was glad to get that opportunity last night. "It's human nature to want to do well against the team that traded you," he said. *