CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Phillies flew north from Clearwater late last night looking much the same as they did during last season's World Series. But a title defense is difficult, and has not been achieved by a National League team since the Cincinnati Reds repeated in 1975-76.

The first few weeks of the season will provide strong clues about the Phillies' chances. Ace Cole Hamels' health will be perhaps the most significant factor. He is scheduled to debut next Friday in Colorado. Hamels, 25, made only one Grapefruit League start in a spring that was disrupted by concerns about his left elbow.

Hamels threw 2621/3 innings last season, including the playoffs; he had never before thrown more than 200 innings in one year. The Phillies, conscious of the risk to Hamels' arm, eased him into spring training slowly.

But on March 17, after experiencing persistent tightness and inflammation in his left elbow, Hamels returned to Philadelphia to meet with a team physician. He was relieved that the doctor found no structural damage, but the setback underscored the fragility of any pitcher after a lengthy postseason.

Hamels did not make a Grapefruit League appearance after the examination, instead pitching twice in the lower-stress environment of minor-league games and reporting no issues. He is set to start tomorrow's exhibition against the Tampa Bay Rays at Citizens Bank Park, and six days later against the Colorado Rockies. The Phillies will carefully monitor Hamels' results, velocity and elbow, hoping for a smooth beginning.

The next three spots in the starting rotation also will be crucial to the team's hopes of repeating. Brett Myers will pitch on opening night, and after Hamels begins his season, the righthander will be the No. 2 starter. After a disastrous first half of last season, Myers pitched well after returning from a minor-league demotion in late July. A free agent after this season, he hopes to remain in Philadelphia, but the team wants to first see him pitch consistently.

Pitching coach Rich Dubee maintained during spring training that Myers, who lost about 30 pounds during the off-season, can be successful if committed. "Brett can have any type of season he wants to have," Dubee said.

Behind Myers, 46-year-old Jamie Moyer's age renders him perennially fragile. Joe Blanton, the fourth starter, seems more stable after posting a 2.45 earned run average this spring. "He came in good shape, and he's looked good," manager Charlie Manuel said.

Chan Ho Park, 35, was awarded the fifth spot in the rotation over J.A. Happ. Although his spring ERA was 2.53, Park last made more than 30 starts in a single season in 2001, when he started 35 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Early in the season, the Phillies will monitor Park's ability to pitch deep into games. He will make his first start April 12 in Colorado.

The offense's early performance will indicate whether a lack of spring at-bats for many regulars becomes an April issue. Manuel expressed concern yesterday that many of his players did not reach the 65-70 at-bats that the manager believes is necessary to prepare for the regular season. Because of the World Baseball Classic and injuries, Pedro Feliz, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Matt Stairs and Chris Coste fell short of that total.

"A lot of our guys didn't get the necessary at-bats to show they were ready to go," Manuel said. If the team does not begin the season well offensively, the manager will surely blame the lack of spring at-bats.

The Phillies also will monitor the continued recovery of Utley and Feliz from hip and back surgeries, respectively. Both infielders recovered more quickly than expected and are likely to be in the opening-night lineup against Atlanta.

According to The Fielding Bible, a book that evaluates defense, Feliz fell from first to 10th among major-league third basemen last season. (Utley was rated the best second baseman in baseball.) The Phillies hope that Feliz's decline will be reversed by the surgery, and that Utley's aggressive playing style does not risk further health problems.

Despite all these particulars, Manuel said yesterday that the most important element to repeating is desire, and he feels the Phillies are motivated. "Wanting it is the main thing," he said. "Wanting it."

Sheffield's status. Gary Sheffield, released by the Detroit Tigers earlier this week, met with the Reds yesterday. Cincinnati's manager, Dusty Baker, said he could offer Sheffield only limited playing time.

The Phillies remain interested in Sheffield, although they are unsure if the 40-year-old will accept a part-time role. While the Phillies' starting outfield is set, Chris Dickerson, Jerry Hairston Jr., Jonny Gomes and Laynce Nix are competing for the left-field job in Cincinnati.

The game. The Phillies lost to the Nationals, 12-10, sealing their Grapefruit League record at 12-18-2. . . . Ryan Howard hit his Grapefruit League-leading 10th home run, and Feliz went 4 for 5 with three doubles. . . . Moyer pitched four innings and allowed 11 hits, nine runs, two walks and three home runs. He struck out three.