THE PREMISE was met with smirks and rolled eyes on Opening Day, and maybe it should have been. One game, one loss, was not nearly enough time to measure an intangible, not nearly enough time to figure out if the Phillies could afford to lose the part of Aaron Rowand that doesn't appear on the stat sheet.

There were plenty of leaders to fill the void, I was told back then. Chase Utley. Ryan Howard. Jimmy Rollins was the reigning MVP, the guy who put a target on his team the year before and then delivered. Shane Victorino spoke as fast as he ran. Jamie Moyer was like a coach and a pitcher all rolled into one.

"I don't see what changed from when [Rowand] got here [in 2006]," Rollins insisted that day. "I don't see why it would be different now that he isn't here."

I winced when he said it then and wince as I type it now. Before Rowand, the Phillies were often deemed a talented but glass-jawed bunch, unable to take a hit or land a big punch when needed. Coming off a World Series championship, Rowand helped them redefine themselves as gritty, resilient winners.

Other than that, nothing changed.

Now, as the second half of this baseball season begins, the Phillies seem as perplexed as their swelled fan base as to what is missing on this team.

Yes, Brett Myers is a minor league mess, but that's hardly a new story. Yes, Howard's strikeouts and Mendoza-line batting average has emphasized wrong-headed national infatuation with the home run, but again, hardly new.

The Phillies were 13 games over .500 with both of these high-priced stars struggling. They were five games over .500 before last night as those struggles continued.

Empirically, two big integers have been a part of the swoon that has seen them lose 13 of 18 games since sweeping the Braves. Utley's batting struggles have been well-documented.

Rollins' not as much.

Utley has pushed his average back up near .300. Rollins was hitting .264 before last night's game in Atlanta. More to the point, Rollins, who did much of the eye-rolling about Rowand's absence on Opening Day, was benched for a lack of hustle on the final game of a homestand in which the Phillies won eight of 10 games.

At the time it seemed like a little bump in what was shaping up as a runaway season for the Phillies. Hitting .289 at the time, the veteran shortstop, who has played for three managers here, took his medicine and took it well. He even implied that he was punished for a series of similar half-efforts, which again begged the Rowand question.

If he were still here, would Manuel have been pushed to that point?

"He played the game so hard it backed up his words," Victorino had said of Rowand on Opening Day. "You could never say he wasn't playing hard. The way he played the game, you're going to listen to him off the field when he said, 'We need to do this.' ''

The Phillies won the first three games of a road trip in Atlanta June 6-8. They have won five games since, and Rollins has looked awful for most of it. Did the episode have any lingering effect? No doubt Rollins would roll his eyes about that, and maybe he would be right. But when you follow an act like that with a stretch like this, you beg those type of questions.

In his mea culpa that day, Rollins made a point to say he had also been scolded by Victorino. But no one is looking to Victorino, an everyday player this season for the first time in his career, to take charge of this team, to lead it. That's supposed to be Rollins' role, or Utley's, or Howard's.

It is said that Utley runs the clubhouse these days. If so, he does it differently than Rowand. He is not sitting at his locker when the doors open. He does not issue state-of-the-team statements, or even get too expansive with his answers to the media. There were times you felt Rowand was speaking to teammates with those answers, especially the younger ones, trying to establish a tone.

The Phillies are in search of that tone right now. On paper they are a better team than the one that won the division by a sliver a year ago. But the Braves and the Mets know all about what that paper does not show, about the fine line between a team defined by "Whatever it takes" to a team defined by "Whatever."

For 2 months this team won games late, closed out games early, beat up on pitchers good and bad. It was quite a talent show, but rarely is this game won on talent alone. Along the line things like heart and leadership are put to the test, and the response invariably defines the team more than its talent does.

For these Phillies, now appears to be one of those times, and their first without Rowand. Roll your eyes if you must, but something is going to be revealed here. *

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