AS THE PHILLIES jet off to their favorite place - that is, anyplace but here - so much is going wrong that you can pretty much pick on anything right now as a problem and be right. Except that you'd be wrong.

Because nothing is wrong with the Phillies that more starting pitching cannot fix.

That is it. The rest of it is disconcerting, yes, but it is a sideshow. It is true that Brad Lidge will have to come back and be Brad Lidge again, or none of this will work. It is also true that Jimmy Rollins will have to be some semblance of Jimmy Rollins again or this offense never will reach its potential, especially in the absence of the injured Raul Ibanez.

But more starting pitching would help everybody. It would be the gift that keeps on giving. It is what fixed a floundering Phillies team last summer and it is what will be needed to fix a floundering Phillies team this summer.

As they travel to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a World Series rematch beginning tonight against the Tampa Bay Rays, this is the most relevant number amid the reams of statistics you can concoct about the Phillies: 5.29. That is the earned-run average of their starting pitching staff this season. Five-point-two-nine.

It is the worst ERA among starting staff in the National League. Among other things, that means it is worse than the Washington Nationals, which really ought to be impossible (even if they did just finish up a decent week). You cannot possibly hope to win another World Series with the worst starting ERA in the league. You cannot pretend to hope.

It affects everything. Because the starting pitching has been so ineffective, the bullpen is rapidly becoming cooked - a problem exacerbated by injuries to Lidge and Scott Eyre and the resulting shuffling of everybody's role. Because the starting pitching has been so ineffective, the hitters have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to play come-from-behind baseball - the natural result of which is trying to do too much, to hit three-run homers when singles and doubles would suffice.

Look, this lineup will always be streaky. That is just the way it is built, and we have about 5 years' worth of evidence now. Ibanez was brought in to smooth out some of the peaks and valleys, and he has, but he is only one-eighth of the equation. The rest of it is, well, good enough to overcome its inconsistencies - but nothing can be done at this point about the inconsistencies.

There is nothing to do but fix the starting pitching.

People forget what last summer was like, the details drowned out by the ending. It was a long struggle in 2008. It was very much like this. They had the terrible losing streak at exactly the same time in June. Even when they snapped out of it, though, they really didn't. For nearly the next month, the Phils were only 11-10.

Then the two big things happened: Joe Blanton was acquired from Oakland, and Brett Myers went on his tour of the minor league and refound whatever it was he had misplaced. Just like that, 40 percent of the rotation was reinvigorated. And the numbers began to drop.

From July 22 to the end of the season, the team ERA was 3.81.

From Aug. 22 to the end of the season, it was 3.74.

From Sept. 11 to the end of the season, it was 3.40.

That is how the Phillies won the pennant, riding the wave of a falling ERA. Because, lo and behold, once the starting pitching became stabilized, they began to hit again. Once they could just relax a little and know that they weren't going to be in a desperate hole every night, the hitting perked up in lockstep.

From July 22 to the end of the season, they scored 4.9 runs per game.

From Aug. 22 to the end of the season, it was 5.5 runs.

From Sept. 11 to the end of the season, it was 5.8 runs.

All of which means what for 2009? Only that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to get another arm in here, and soon. He might need two. And if he doesn't get one in fairly good order, he might need more for the bullpen, too - because another couple of weeks like the last couple will completely fry his relievers.

Now, everybody already knew this. It just that, when everything is going wrong, sometimes it is important to restate the obvious. *

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