LAS VEGAS - Now that the Phillies are busy designing their World Series rings, it's easy to forget that they didn't exactly dominate the National League East last season.

In fact, it took a torrid finish, coupled with another Mets collapse. And, even then, they didn't clinch until the day before the regular season ended.

The clear difference was the bullpens. Phillies closer Brad Lidge was 41-for-41 in save opportunities and the rest of the relievers failed to hold a lead only 15 times. The Mets bullpen, by contrast, had 29 blown saves, including seven by closer Billy Wagner, who didn't pitch after Aug. 2 because of elbow problems.

So the news that the Mets have agreed to a 3-year, $37 million contract with Francisco Rodriguez, who set a major league record with 62 saves last season, is a move that seems as if it should resonate up and down Citizens Bank Way.

"I don't think it affects us much," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. insisted yesterday at the winter meetings at the posh Bellagio. "They've had Billy Wagner, and we still beat them the last 2 years in our division.

"He's going to be a fine addition to their club if, in fact, the deal is finalized [pending a physical]. But those sorts of things don't affect our manager and doesn't affect our players. They just go out and play and I think that they like those challenges.

"This organization does not operate on a reactive basis. We try to do what's necessary to improve our club. And we can't worry about what the Mets or Marlins or Atlanta Braves are doing out there. We have a tough enough time worrying about the Philadelphia Phillies."

Mets manager Jerry Manuel, however, thinks things could have been different if he had had Rodriguez, or even a healthy Wagner, all of last season.

"Our chances would have been much greater," he said. "To have a guy of that sort at the end of a ballgame is very important, very critical for us. Or for anybody."

Making a pitch

During his Hall of Fame career, Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan was known as a workhorse pitcher who thrived despite often running up high pitch counts.

Not surprising, then, one of his primary goals now is to buck the trend of having pitchers work less and train them to be able to handle more rigorous workloads.

"What we're doing may cause criticism when somebody has a [physical] issue," he conceded yesterday at the winter meetings. "But we're going to have them throwing more in the bullpen, spending more time on the mound and working on their conditioning.

"We have a lot of young pitchers who haven't been in this position before. The unknown is how they'll respond. I think in the next 2 years, we'll have a better read on where we are.

"I think when you put limits on people, you keep them from learning what they're capable of doing. When I played, there wasn't anything magical about 100 pitches. It depended on the night. If you were struggling with your mechanics, 100 pitches could be more detrimental than 130 if you weren't."

Ryan doesn't want only to change the mind-set of starters.

"I'm of the theory that each time you go to the bullpen that you increase your chances that a guy may be a little off that night," he said. "I think we've really shot ourselves in the foot with all these one-inning deals, one-inning pitchers. I think a middle reliever should at least be able to go through the lineup one time."

Going batty

From July through September of last season, Major League Baseball collected 2,232 bats that broke during games, as part of an effort to determine why so many were shattering, endangering the safety of both players and spectators.

The results of that study were announced yesterday, and included nine recommendations that have been adopted for the 2009 season.

The Safety and Health Advisory Committee concluded that in the 756 cases when bats broke into multiple pieces, maple bats were three times more likely to shatter than ash.

However, there is no recommendation to outlaw the use of maple. The reason is that the preliminary conclusion is that the breakages were do more to the "slope" of the grain in the bat handle.

Accordingly, most of the rules that will be implemented regard technical specifications involving the manufacturing process.

It's expected that by Opening Day, all bats used in big-league games will either be new or leftover bats that have been certified to meet the standards.

Further research will be conducted to see what impact that ratio between the width of the handle and the barrel and the drying process have on the frequency of bats shattering. *