NEW YORK - Brad Lidge acknowledges that the schedule he lays out in his mind tends to be more optimistic than the one that the Phillies' training staff follows. So when a reporter asked him whether he was on pace to return to the active roster during the team's series in Atlanta that starts Monday, he made sure to categorize his response as an educated guess.

"They haven't let me get that far in planning," Lidge said, "but it does look that way."

Lidge threw 25 fastballs in a bullpen session yesterday, his first work off a mound since the Phillies' medical staff injected his inflamed right elbow with a shot of cortisone on May 17. He expects to throw another bullpen session tomorrow, after which the Phillies tentatively scheduled him to travel with them to Miami. At some point this weekend, Lidge could make a rehab appearance for Class A Clearwater, which is scheduled to play a three-game series in Port St. Lucie, about an hour's ride from the Phillies' hotel.

Beyond that, the team is treating the situation as wait-and-see.

The righthander missed most of the first month of the season while finishing his recovery from offseason surgery on the flexor tendon in his elbow (his knee was repaired in a separate procedure). He returned on April 30 against the Mets, allowing two hits, one of them a solo home run, and recording one out.

In three subsequent appearances, he threw three scoreless innings, allowing a hit and a walk while striking out three. Against the Cardinals on May 4, he entered a tie game in the ninth inning with the go-ahead run on second and proceeded to record three outs. He allowed his only baserunner on an intentional walk. Five days later, he pitched a perfect ninth inning against the Braves while recording his first save of the year in a 5-3 win.

But he also began to feel pain in his elbow. He was unavailable to pitch at Colorado the day after his appearance against the Braves. Two days later, he flew home for an MRI exam that revealed no structural damage, but significant inflammation in the elbow. He received a cortisone shot and again began working his way back toward the active roster.

The Phillies placed him on the disabled list later in the week and turned the closing duties over to righthander Jose Contreras has allowed only one run, eight hits and two walks, while striking out 20 in 14 1/3 innings.

Contreras recorded two saves after Lidge went back on the disabled list, but hasn't pitched in a game since May 20 against the Cubs.

Manager Charlie Manuel said his decision-making in tight games will depend largely on how Lidge performs after he recovers. But he also has said repeatedly he thinks the 38-year-old Contreras, who entered the season as a full-time reliever for the first time in this, his eighth season, has the potential to be a successful closer.

"We're trying to build him up where he can go at least 3 or 4 days in a row," Manuel said. "That's a process, but stuff-wise, what he's done so far, he's been very good, and he's got the talent to pitch at the end of the game and to be a closer."

Enough already

Manuel took the first chance he got to apologize for remarks he made about the Mets after the Rockies accused the Phillies 2 weeks ago of using binoculars to steal their signs.

"That was something that I just said that was stupid," he said. "Somebody said something dumb to me, and I said something dumb back."

Manuel made the original comments as he angrily responded to a FoxSports.com report that suggested that, in addition to the Rockies, the Mets had complained to Major League Baseball about the possibility of the Phillies' stealing signs.

"Somebody maybe ought to check the Mets if they did that," Manuel said at the time. "Their home record is out of this world [14-8], and they're losing on the road [4-8]. Sometimes that's a good indicator of getting signs and [bleep].

"I'm not accusing them, but you look at that and - damn. We're about the same home and road. I'm just saying their record is much better at home, and they hit better."

Yesterday, Manuel said the comments were made in the heat of the moment and came in response to "somebody," presumably a reporter, who "just wanted to blow something out." Further, he retold a story about eating lunch with Mets pitchers Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez last summer when he managed the National League All-Star team, calling it one of the highlights of his week.

"I have a lot of respect for the Mets," he said yesterday. "I have a lot of respect for Jerry Manuel. The only thing about my comment, to me it wasn't nothing, and it wasn't very smart."

There was no evidence of the Phillies stealing signs last night at Citi Field, although they did seem to know exactly when righthander R.A. Dickey was going to throw a knuckleball. Although, in fairness, so did everybody else in attendance.

Phillers

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, out until at least June 6 with what the team has called a minor calf strain, will head to the Phillies' spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla., today to continue his rehab . . . Righthander Ryan Madson, out until at least early July with a broken toe, traveled to Clearwater yesterday to continue his rehab. Joining him was lefthander J.A. Happ, who is expected to be sidelined until at least mid-June as he continues to battle a strained forearm. *

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.