WASHINGTON - Normally, it was a comment that would have been followed by a yawn. Normally, a manager saying he wants to field the team that gives him the best chance to win would hardly rate a second thought.

Well, duh.

Except that sometimes, in the proper context, the most mundane and milquetoast remark can take on a deeper meaning. Like late yesterday afternoon, in the visiting manager's office at Nationals Park, for example.

The Phillies had just beaten the staggering Nationals, 8-6, to complete a four-game sweep. Charlie Manuel, naturally, was happy to take the W. The joy was tempered by the fact that starter Chan Ho Park had the shortest, least effective start of a season marked by all-too-frequent short and ineffective starts from the rotation.

Put that side-by-side with the fact that lefthander J.A. Happ, who was edged out for the fifth spot by Park in spring training, has been pitching extremely well out of the bullpen. Add that he was scheduled to make his first start of the season Saturday night before being pushed into an emergency relief appearance by extra innings Friday and the manager's seemingly innocuous quote takes on a sudden gravitas.

"We're concerned about our pitching. And we're going to do what we think is the best way to go, any way we can improve it. [Today] is an off day. That will give us some time to talk about it. We'll see what comes out of it. We just want to do what's best for our pitching staff. We want to put the best pitchers out there that we possibly can get," is what he said.

That ain't exactly a vote of confidence for Park, who would be scheduled to make his next start Saturday at the new Yankee Stadium.

In fact, a manager who is usually resolutely supportive of his players, no matter what, was clinical and detached in dissecting Park's performance.

"Chan Ho had a bad outing. He had one of those outings where it seemed like he couldn't get going and nothing he tried worked out. Things just didn't happen for him," Manuel said.

After the umpires missed a checked-swing call on Nationals leftfielder Josh Willingham in the first, Park waved his arms in disbelief. "I don't know what we can do [about a 35-year-old veteran losing his cool]. He's the one who has to correct it. He's the one who has to keep his poise. He's the one who has to stay aggressive. He's the one that's got the ball," Manuel said.

Those are red flags.

Park isn't the only starter who is struggling. But let's be realistic here. Joe Blanton is on a $5.475 million contract. Jamie Moyer agreed to a 2-year, $13 mil-lion deal. They have longer leashes than Park, who is making $2.5 million and was envisioned as a reliever when he signed as a free agent last winter.

It's not just that Park has a 7.08 earned run average, although that's certainly part of it.

It's also that he has too often let adversity bother him. Pitching coach Rich Dubee, who scolded Kyle Kendrick during spring training for getting flustered on the mound when things didn't go his way, was asked about Park. He answered about the pitchers in general.

"In my opinion, we are not staying on task. We're getting distracted, whether it be by a flare hit or a home run or a borderline pitch. We're just not grinding it out one pitch at a time. There have been stretches where we seem like we start to wander."

Park even admitted that he let not having Willingham rung up bother him. "That was a terrible call," he said. "The guy started walking back to the bench. I was upset about that."

He also conceded that he was bothered by not having good command of his sinker. "I was pretty upset about that and lost my confidence level," he said. "I was a little frustrated."

It seems unlikely that a final decision has been reached. But by the time Saturday night's game in the Bronx gets under way, this season will have reached the quarter-pole. It is the time of year when adjustments traditionally begin to be made.

"Happ [2-0, 2.49] threw good [Friday]. So that's an option that we've got," Manuel said.

"If you go talk to any of our starters, they're veterans and they know when they've pitched good and when they're not pitching good. They know how major league baseball is played and things that happen. I mean, we're here to win," Manuel said.

"What we want to do is get the best staff we can possibly have. Not only our starters, but our bullpen, too," he said.

Taken by themselves, the quotes don't sound like much.

Put together in the atmosphere in which they were made and nobody should be surprised if the Phillies make their first rotation change of the year 5 days from now. *

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