THE FIRST DAY back from a road trip is always something of a carnival, particularly during Pax Philadelphia, that period of dead time that exists between the end of a Flyers season and the first time somebody at the NovaCare Complex hiccups. From the television trucks scrambling to get a sound bite for the 6 p.m. news to the legion of writers who have watched the previous week from afar, everybody has a question that has had them burning up inside for 7 long days.

Yesterday, that question was: What the heck is wrong with the Phillies offense? And what the heck are they going to do about it?

The answer, relayed repeatedly by Charlie Manuel and his immediate supervisor, will not do much to placate the concern. But with 2 months before the trading deadline and two key starters out of the lineup, the Phillies do not think they have many options other than the great wait-and-see.

"I'm not saying our offense is in a slump," Manuel told reporters before last night's 2-1 win over the Rockies. "We just don't have what we call our regular players in, the guys we pay the money to put in the lineup to hit . . . You've got a situation where you've got to play what you've got. And that's basically what we've been doing. Now are we in a slump? I don't know. I don't know because we haven't had those guys on the field."

Those guys would be second baseman Chase Utley, still working his way back from a knee injury that has kept him off the field since February, and centerfielder Shane Victorino, who is hoping to rejoin the lineup within the next few days after a bout with hamstring soreness. Their absences have been magnified lately because nobody else is hitting with any degree of consistency.

Manuel gave rookie outfielder John Mayberry Jr. his fourth consecutive start last night. More telling, perhaps, was his decision not to include the righthanded-hitting Ben Francisco in the lineup, despite the fact that the Phillies were facing Rockies lefty Jorge De La Rosa. In his previous 42 at-bats heading into last night, the Opening Day rightfielder had managed just four hits, none of them for extra bases.

Francisco is hitting .218 with a .673 on-base plus slugging percentage. Ibanez entered with a .223 average and .618 OPS, and singled in three at-bats last night. Both players have spent most of the season hitting behind Ryan Howard, and now the question is whether their struggles is having an impact on the big first baseman.

Howard went hitless in three at-bats last night. In his previous 16 games, Howard hit .169, with a .279 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage, with three home runs, five extra-base hits, eight RBI, nine walks and 22 strikeouts in 68 plate appearances. Manuel pointed to the Phillies' loss to the Cardinals on Monday, when Howard walked three times. The Phillies ended up scoring only one run that night. The next night, Howard went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and the Phillies again managed one run.

"I think he tries to do too much at times, especially when we get people on base," Manuel said. "They throw the ball out of the strike zone, hoping that he will get himself out. That's what they do to Ryan. When he feels that he needs to knock in runs, yeah, I feel like it plays a part."

The Phillies hope some of the pressure will be alleviated when Utley returns. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he does not expect that to happen this weekend. The second baseman played nine innings at Class A Clearwater last night. If all goes well, he will play nine again tonight. His return is close, but not imminent.

"Right now," Amaro said, "I think we kind of half to ride out the storm a little bit and get guys healthy and hope that guys start performing a little bit better." *