WASHINGTON - Later, after Geoff Jenkins caught the fly ball in rightfield that ended the game and the fans started shuffling for the exits at Nationals Park, Brett Myers stood in front of his locker and insisted that it had never crossed his mind.

That the previous day, Adam Eaton had been consigned to the purgatory of a minor league assignment.

That earlier in the afternoon, lefthander J.A. Happ was officially added to the roster.

That the trading deadline is tomorrow and the Phillies have reached that point of the season where they must construct their rotation from the best arms they have available. Regardless of service time. Regardless of salary. Regardless of reputation. Regardless of who might have just gotten here in a trade for a couple highly regarded prospects.

That, in short, if he didn't start pitching better pronto he could find himself shoved into the margins, his future with the organization very much in doubt.

"Honestly, it really wasn't on my mind," he said last night after pitching seven strong innings to win his first game since May 30 as the Phillies edged baseball's worst team, the Washington Nationals, 2-1. "If it was, I wouldn't have been able to concentrate."

Maybe that's the whole truth and nothing but. On the other hand, at another point during his postgame postmortem he said that he knew he had to pitch better "or my butt's going to be back in Triple A again. And I don't want that."

It's a fine line. One of the reasons Myers agreed to make four minor league starts was to try to rebuild his shattered confidence. Lack of swagger can be a killer, especially for a pitcher.

Its close relative, insecurity, can be helpful at times, though. And Charlie Manuel seemed determined to create an element of uncertainty before the game. Asked point-blank how important this start was for Myers, the manager didn't hesitate.

"Right now, I feel like we've got to give Brett a few more starts and see where he's at," he said noncommittally. "We'll just have to wait and see."

As ringing endorsements go, that comes up a little short.

In fact, that wasn't the only comment he made during his daily dugout update that sounded suspiciously like an in-your-face challenge to Myers, and possibly Joe Blanton. When asked about how well he thought the newly arrived Happ would adapt to an unfamiliar relief role, he made it clear that he still views the young lefty as a starter.

And don't kid yourself. While Manuel's grammar may sometimes be tortured, there was no mistaking what he was trying to say. Which is that, as far as he's concerned, the time for experimentation and nursing guys along is over.

In some ways, Myers was in a lose-lose situation last night. If he didn't pitch well, the wolves would be nipping at his heels, demanding that he be removed from the rotation at once and maybe be made to stay after school and clean the erasers as well.

If he did, the cynics would be quick to say, sure, but he did it against a Nationals lineup that had scored a total of two runs in its previous four games, batting .133 as a team in the process. A team that has been shut out 15 times already this season. The only club in the National League to have scored less than 400 runs going into last night.

So all eyes will be on Myers when he makes his next start, Sunday in St. Louis. In the meantime, though, allowing just one unearned run on four hits defused what could have been a tense situation, which allowed him to talk freely about his hellish season.

"I hated how bad I was going, because I knew how good I could be," he said. "I was embarrassed. Guys didn't know what to say to me . . . I just wanted to come in and sit in front of my locker and beat myself with a hammer. I didn't want to put on that fake face, but you have to do that in this game, be the same every day.

"I was just so beat up. When they offered me the opportunity to go to the minor leagues, it wasn't a great opportunity. But I needed to go down and figure out why the hell I was so bad.

"I honestly did not know how to pitch. That's what I was fighting through. I didn't want to go home and I didn't want to go to the ballpark. I was angry all the time."

There were signs last night that he's on his way back. He had command on both sides of the plate. His fastball was hitting 92 at times on the scoreboard radar. Even against a Nationals lineup that helped him by swinging early in the count, he was impressive.

And, maybe more importantly, his impish side was back. Early in the game, he told shortstop Jimmy Rollins, "Don't be afraid to mess with me a little bit. Don't come to the mound and be all serious. Tell me, 'Your breath stinks, or something.' "

When Manuel came to the mound, he snapped, "I can get this guy [pinch-hitter Ryan Langerhans]. Check out my numbers against him," adding a few expletives for emphasis . . . then broke into a wide grin when Manuel started to redden.

It's only one start. Myers obviously has to demonstrate that he can do it again, against a team with a more potent lineup. He'll get that chance soon enough. In the meantime, that sound coming from the visitors' clubhouse last night was a huge sigh of relief. *

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