THE BIGGEST STORY about the bullpen this season is the fact that it has not been a story. With veteran setup man Ryan Madson emerging as a dominant closer and young relievers Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes helping to set him up, the Phillies have weathered injuries to key performers Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras and J.C. Romero.

Now that Contreras is ready to return - assuming his elbow checks out OK with team doctor Michael Ciccotti, the team likely will activate him today or tomorrow - pitching coach Rich Dubee finds himself with a variety of options in tight games.

Contreras, who started the season at closer before suffering an elbow strain in mid-April, should become the primary setup man in front of Madson. Bastardo, who has allowed two earned runs and eight hits while striking out 24 and walking eight in 17 innings, will be able to pitch in the eighth inning when Dubee and manager Charlie Manuel want to stay away from Contreras, or when they want to play matchups.

Stutes, meanwhile, could slide into the type of role veteran righthander Chad Durbin filled before signing with the Indians this offseason. The 24-year-old righthander has allowed two earned runs, with nine strikeouts and five walks in 8 innings.

Contreras, who labeled himself ready to return yesterday, converted all five of his save opportunities with nine strikeouts and four walks in eight scoreless innings before landing on the disabled list. The emergence of Bastardo and, to a lesser extent, Stutes, should enable the Phillies to avoid the type of heavy usage that helped cause Contreras' elbow strain. Contreras' presence, meanwhile, will help them avoid asking Bastardo and Stutes to do too much too soon.

"We try not to push them 3 days in a row right away and stuff like that," Dubee said. "Sometimes, the game dictates that. We've been cautious. Michael, the first time he came back back-to-back days wasn't very impressive. That was probably one of his weaker outings. But they have to become accustomed to that. This is a little harder than pitching back-to-back in Triple A. You are talking about the best hitters in the game, so, yeah, there is a little more effort involved."

One thing is clear: Barring a dramatic turn of events, the Phillies intend to stick with Madson as their closer. He took the loss in last night's 6-3 defeat to the Reds, allowing three runs in the ninth on three hits. He has converted all nine of his save opportunities, and has allowed four runs, struck out 23 and walked eight in 20 innings.

Things could get interesting when Lidge returns from the strained rotator cuff that has sidelined him since late in spring training. Lidge, who will be a free agent this offseason, still has considerable work to do before returning. He is in Clearwater, Fla., where he likely will throw three to four more bullpen sessions before the Phillies think about getting him into a rehab game. Lidge essentially is starting spring training over and could need eight to 10 minor league appearances before he is ready to be activated.

Assuming Lidge keeps progressing without a setback, he could rejoin the Phillies in late June. At that point, he likely would be asked to fill a role he has not played regularly since his early years with the Astros.

"He could pitch the seventh, he could pitch the eighth, he could pitch the ninth - anywhere in the back end," Dubee said. "It might be [an adjustment] to a degree, but he did it before in front of [former Astros closer] Billy Wagner in Houston. It's not like he hasn't done it."

Other injuries

Shane Victorino could be ready to return from his hamstring strain by the time he is eligible to be activated from the disabled list on June 3, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. The centerfielder has taken batting practice and done sprinting drills, but likely will need to play in the minor leagues before he is ready . . . Ross Gload was unavailable to pinch-hit last night because of a hip injury. *