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Stairs swings for fences, connecting in a big way

DENVER - Matt Stairs' game-winning, pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning yesterday traveled 432 feet into right-center at Coors Field.

DENVER - Matt Stairs' game-winning, pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning yesterday traveled 432 feet into right-center at Coors Field.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who had struggled as a pinch-hitter in the majors, could only smile and shake his head after the 7-5 victory over Colorado.

"That's why Stairs is on this team," he said. "Stairs is amazing, absolutely unreal. He amazes me because I had that job for five or six years, and that's a tough job to do."

Stairs is a rare hitter who tries to blast home runs in every plate appearance. The approach worked for him in the eighth inning of Game 4 of last year's National League Championship Series, when his pinch-hit homer defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it worked again for him yesterday. Stairs said that he was expecting a change-up from Colorado reliever Huston Street, and he received a fastball instead. But he was able to regroup and send the pitch far into the outfield seats.

"My approach doesn't change," Stairs said. "In batting practice, I try to hit every ball as far as I can," and he does the same in games.

So far this season, fans at Citizens Bank Park have greeted the 41-year-old's pinch-hit appearances with frenzied cheers. Stairs understands that last year's playoff homer endeared him to the public. "I think they realize how special that home run was for this team and the City of Philadelphia," he said.

'Utley's good'

After undergoing hip surgery in November, Chase Utley was not expected to be on the field in early April, much less be the Phillies' top hitter through the first week of the season. But after going 2 for 3 and hitting a game-tying home run yesterday, Utley is batting .476. He also stole his second base yesterday, and is the only Phillie with a steal this season.

Manuel said the reason for Utley's success was self-evident. "Utley's Utley," he said. "Utley's good."

Park struggles

Steady rain fell as Chan Ho Park walked slowly from the mound to the dugout with one out in the fourth inning. Under the Florida sun in March, Park was stellar, and won the intensely contested fifth spot in the Phillies rotation. But on a cold and drizzly Denver afternoon, he endured a miserable first regular-season start.

Park, 35, labored through 31/3 innings, allowing seven hits and five runs and throwing 97 pitches. He attributed the struggles to a lack of feel for his slider, which is typically his strikeout pitch. Pitching coach Rich Dubee said that Park was in too many three-ball counts. Whatever the cause, the Phillies endured another poor outing from a starting pitcher.

The team is now six games into the season, and has yet to receive a quality start - defined as a starting pitcher allowing three runs or fewer in at least six innings. Eight days after opening night, Brett Myers leads Phillies starters in earned run average at 5.54. The remaining numbers, all after one start, are less than stellar: Jamie Moyer (7.20), Joe Blanton (15.75) Cole Hamels (17.18). Park, who pitched a scoreless inning in relief April 7, now has a 10.38 ERA.

Both Dubee and Manuel said they were not yet concerned. "I'd love to see them get off to a good start, but I don't get down because I know that you've got to give a guy a chance and see him more," Manuel said. "The more chances [Park] has to go out there, if he settles in, he's got a chance to have a big season. I look at all our pitchers that way."

Hamels on track

Hamels played long toss and threw a bullpen session yesterday, and said afterward that his left elbow continues to feel healthy. The 25-year-old lefthander is scheduled to start Thursday in Washington and will throw another bullpen session today at Nationals Park. Though he typically throws only one session between starts, Hamels said that after allowing seven runs in 32/3 innings Friday, he needed extra work.