CLEARWATER, Fla. - When Warner Bros. was cranking out black-and-white war movies, the grenade would bounce into the gun emplacement and somebody would fall on it. Often, it was the most popular guy in the outfit. He would bite the big one to save his buddies.

Kaboom . . .

Ben Francisco launched a Tomahawk Cruise Missile disguised as a baseball down the leftfield line during batting practice yesterday. Where was Gadhafi when Bud Selig needed him? I was standing with Phillies president Dave Montgomery near the players' entrance to Bright House Field about 300 feet from home plate.

Dave had been talking to head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan when I asked Dave if he had a few minutes. Chase Utley had just gone through his most intensive series of activities since his patellar tendinitis plus chondromalacia became a daily headline. He stretched and threw with the position players before batting practice, took ground balls at second and gingerly made some throws to first from a behind-the-bag position. Then he hit, which was the only thing he had been doing during BP.

If this were the NFL, Utley would be shot up before a game and sent out to play. How would you like to have a share of Google stock for every NFL running back who has gone out there and played with patellar tendinitis?

General manager Ruben Amaro confirmed that released Mets second baseman Luis Castillo would be reporting on a minor league contract. Meaning, of course, that he will be the Opening Day second baseman if Utley is put on the disabled list. That appears to be as inevitable as $4-a-gallon gas.

I was interviewing Monty for part of our season-opener package next week when Francisco got a rapid series of beeps from his bat that we were locked in as targets. And he launched.

In Hollywood, I would have been 75 pounds lighter, Alan Ladd-handsome and would have leaped in front of David and taken the horsehide bullet.

In real time, I hollered, "Dave, heads up . . . " I was bailing like a 101st Airborne veteran as the ball hooked into us. Monty turned right to duck and cover, turned right into it. When the WOMD nailed him on the right hip area, it made the same sound a ball makes when a major league batter makes solid contact - a sharp crack that suggested baseball on bone.

"I'm OK," he said. "It hit on my pocket. I've got a comb and my car key in there." David pulled out the comb. A tooth was missing. I told him the Daily News headline would be, "Monty Cries Foul, Texts Tooth Fairy."

Placido Polanco, who is day-to-day with his latest elbow problem, was shagging in left. Montgomery asked his third baseman who hit the ball that lit him up.

"Right there," Polly grinned, pointing to Francisco, who had just jogged to left after his group finished BP.

"You gonna release me?" the rightfielder said.

"You're too valuable to release," Dave yelled. "I'd release myself first."

Around the fourth inning of Roy Halladay's 7 2/3-inning gem against the Red Sox, Montgomery walked through Whale Beach. I asked if he had a bruise.

"I haven't checked, but look at this . . . "

He pulled what was left of the remote key and its lucite fob from his pocket. It looked like it had been run over by a 12-wheel semi.

Which is kind of what Charlie Manuel's ballclub is starting to resemble.

With Utley all but definitely headed for a disabled-list assignment as the big medical brains try to figure out how to lick a condition that requires full rest without actually resting the tightly wired second baseman, figures whether the latest Polanco setback is a scare or a problem, whether closer Brad Lidge will regain any of his lost velocity, the back end of the roster is in flux.

Josh Barfield . . . Delwyn Young . . . Michael Martinez . . .

Manuel can play each of them almost anywhere. Charlie is juggling as fast as he can and saying, "At the same time," a whole lot.

Usually, when three jacks of all utilities are competing for jobs in such an uncertain environment, at least one of them has the decency to eliminate himself by playing poorly.

But Martinez, an elfin Rule 5er who reminds some old-timers of a vest-pocket Steve Jeltz, plays six positions and regaled fans in Sarasota the other day with two dazzling plays at short. He is a singles hitter on his scouting reports, but has two exhibition homers, is batting .275, can fly on the bases and appears at home playing third, short, second and all three outfield positions.

Barfield started at third in the 4-1 victory over the Red Sox, but moved to center after Shane Victorino suffered a bruised eye, facial cuts and a sore jaw in a frightening collision with Raul Ibanez. Barfield is hitting over .300. Corner outfielder Young also plays second, joining a line of potential Utley caddies that now includes Castillo, Martinez and Wilson Valdez. Young, who has some interesting power, is batting .286.

"Looks like they can all play," Manuel said, adding with some chagrin, "and they all can play a lot of positions."

Meanwhile, with all this fin de March chess going on, I'm trying to talk Montgomery into putting his toothless comb and trashed remote key up for silent auction at the Phillies' next ALS funder.

A casualty of friendly fire . . .

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