SARASOTA, Fla. - Picture a packed Nationals Park. April 5, Opening Day for the Phillies in Washington. Leading by a run in the bottom of the eighth with two outs, but the Nats have the bases loaded and dangerous Adam Dunn is settling in at the plate as the stadium lights begin to sharpen in the gathering, early-evening gloom.

Charlie Manuel calls for time and ambles toward the mound. He wants to bring in a lefthander to face the lefty-swinging Dunn. The Phillies' manager turns to the bullpen and calls for . . .

Good question.

Ready or not, the regular season begins 3 weeks from today for the Phillies. They have that long to determine who their lefthanded reliever or relievers will be.

Right now the Magic 8 Ball says: Reply Hazy, Try Again.

Asked after yesterday's 4-3 exhibition loss to the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium to assess the status of his lefthanded bullpen, Rich Dubee didn't mince words.

"Not as good as I'd like to see yet," the pitching coach said. "But I'm sure it will iron itself out. We like those kids [Antonio Bastardo and Sergio Escalona]. We like [Mike] Zagurski. We think those guys have the ability to pitch in the big leagues but, you know, the later we get in the spring, the more they're going to have to show it. They haven't shown it yet."

And if they don't?

"We'll see. We'll make that call when we have to make that call," Dubee said.

Before making the trip down I-75, back in Clearwater, he watched J.C. Romero throw off a mound outside Bright House Field. He mixed in breaking balls for the first time, about a half-dozen of them during his 40-pitch session.

"He was good, very good," Dubee said.

Romero will be the primary lefty option once he's fully recovered from offseason elbow surgery. But since he hasn't faced hitters yet, it seems likely he'll open the regular season on the disabled list.

Dubee indicated that Romero would probably throw again Wednesday, but did not outline the terms and conditions of that workout. "We'll see how he responds. If he's feeling all right, maybe that could be a chance to see some hitters. Or maybe he'll throw on the side," the pitching coach said.

A trade or a waiver-wire pickup is always a possibility. Until further notice, though, the competition for that often-crucial role will boil down to the young, unproven arms in camp. And while Grapefruit League stats aren't always the most accurate yardstick, that's kind of a frightening prospect at the moment.

After being mauled for four runs, three earned, on five hits in his one inning of work Saturday against the Twins, Bastardo is carrying a 13.50 spring earned run average.

Then, yesterday, Escalona struggled against the Orioles. Three runs on four hits, two of them doubles, left him with a 15.00 ERA.

"The problem is command, for the most part," Dubee said. "Escalona didn't get to his curve very much. He got behind in a lot of counts and had to throw a fastball. Most of them were flat and elevated. Bastardo probably could have used his slider more, too. He got a lot of balls on the plate, counts where he didn't have to use that much of the plate."

The only other candidate currently in camp is Zagurski, still relatively inexperienced at age 27 after missing all or part of the last three seasons with injuries. He's had just one Grapefruit League outing this spring and will pitch in a "B'' game at Dunedin this morning.

"He's healthy. As a matter of fact, he's pitched good," Manuel said. "But Zagurski hasn't pitched very much in 2 years. I think people forget about that. These guys are still in the process of being taken care of by our medical people, being monitored and building them up."

The manager shrugged off the early problems of Bastardo and Escalona to their youth. "They're still getting experience and that's what young guys do. We'll keep watching them and see where they're at," he said.

The predicament, of course, is that until Romero is ready, the Phillies might have to rely on an unproven arm.

"If that's the case, then we'll look around," Manuel said. "And if we have to rely on these guys, that's kind of the way it is. That's the way we've done it the last 5 years. We'll just have to see where we're at."

And even if one of those lefties emerges, there still is a potential problem until Romero is ready. The rule of thumb is that having just one lefty in the 'pen is dangerous because the manager will have a tendency to use him, or at least warm him up, whenever the need to retire a lefthanded hitter looms.

So in a perfect world, the Phillies would have two lefthanders they can count on in the bullpen.

Right now, they're still looking for the first one.