ST. LOUIS - A perception has taken root that righthander Chan Ho Park already has reached his first or-else moment with the Phillies. Manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee won't say that in so many words. Thing is, they don't deny it, either.

So Park, signed to be a reliever, determined to pitch out of the rotation, will take the mound tonight, facing the New York Mets at Citi Field, with an invisible cloud hanging over his red cap.

If he regains the form he showed in spring training, when he beat out lefty J.A. Happ for the fifth spot, the issue will be deferred for at least another 5 days. If he doesn't, well . . .

"Every time you go out your job's on the line," Dubee said with a shrug. "Shoot, there's four or five minor league clubs with guys looking for jobs. So every time you go out there, you've got to perform well."

Manuel tap-danced when asked directly if Park, 0-1 with an 8.57 earned run average going into tonight's faceoff against Mets ace Johan Santana, has reached the end of his leash.

"With the way our starting pitching is going now, every time our guys go out there it's important they start doing better," he said. "I think he needs a good game under his belt. I think he knows it. Here's a guy who's 35 years old. He understands the game. He won a spot in spring training and he wants to keep it. And there comes a time when he's got to pitch better. There's also a time when we sit down and evaluate our pitching and see where we go from there.

"I'm not saying it's a life-and-death thing. But I think it's important that he start pitching better than he has been."

Got that?

'Ut' out

The Phillies expect second baseman Chase Utley to be back in the lineup tonight against the Mets after sitting out his second start in three games with a sore right foot.

He was drilled by a pitch from New York's Mike Pelfrey last Friday. He only pinch-hit Saturday and got an extra day of rest when Sunday's game was rained out. He returned to the lineup Monday night in St. Louis, but Miguel Cairo started in his place last night.

"I don't think it's serious," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "Hopefully it will just be a day."

Charlie Manuel said Utley probably could have played last night, and was available to pinch-hit, but that there was no reason to take a chance.

Manuel also likes to give his bench players occasional starts, so this was an opportunity to get Cairo his first start of the season.

Passing grade

Cole Hamels threw in the bullpen yesterday afternoon, did some agility drills and was pronounced fit to return to the rotation Friday night against the Braves.

In his last start, April 28 against the Nationals, Hamels had to leave the game after spraining his left ankle in the fifth inning.

"He was just fine. No problems," Rich Dubee said. "He was free and easy."

Said Hamels: "I was very happy with the way I felt. I was comfortable on the mound again. I'm very eager to get back to 100 pitches, pitch seven or eight innings. I want to be able to relieve the relievers."

Charlie Manuel said there was no temptation to bring Hamels back a day earlier so he could pitch tomorrow night against the Mets. "The Atlanta Braves are just as important as the Mets right now," he said.

He also insisted that matchups didn't figure into the decision, even though Hamels was 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA against the Mets last year compared to 3-1, 2.36 against Atlanta.

Lucky man

Cardinals centerfielder Rick Ankiel, who crashed headfirst into the centerfield fence after making a running catch in the eighth inning Monday night, could have been seriously injured. The crowd was hushed as he was taken off the field on a cart.

Fortunately, the incident turned out not to be as serious as it first appeared. Ankiel spent the night in the hospital, but was back at Busch Stadium last night. While he probably won't play until this weekend at the earliest, he ended up walking away with just soreness in his neck and lower back. Doctors ruled out a concussion and Ankiel joked that he'd watched the television replay about 30 times.

He admitted, though, that he was worried in the immediate aftermath of the collision. "I thought this might be it," he told reporters last night. "Honestly, I thought this might be it."*