THREE HOURS before last night's 4-3, 11-inning loss, a soaked Joe Blanton soaked in that familiar clubhouse feel.

"Kind of feels like the first day of spring training," the Phillies righthander said as his drenched shirt clung to his surprisingly fit frame. "You come in here and see some new faces even."

Blanton was back at Citizens Bank Park after spending a little more than 2 weeks toning himself at the spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla., maintaining and even improving his conditioning, preparing when he is cleared to throw again, cleared to begin the task of strengthening the tendons in his right elbow.

He met last night with Dr. Michael Ciccotti, the team physician, and said he felt none of the tendinitis that made him so ineffective and forced him, finally, to the disabled list. He had just finished running up and down the stands in the nearly 100-degree heat, and his shirt stuck to his frame as if painted on.

"Best shape I've been in terms of conditioning," he said with the smile of a man happy to be home.

"It just sucks not being able to go out and help the team. These guys are doing great. It just sucks not being able to contribute more than anything. Off on vacation somewhere - that's what it feels like."

Meanwhile . . . Kyle Kendrick, the $2 million starter-turned-long-reliever-turned-starter-again took the hill against the Chicago Cubs and, for the three innings that preceded that swirling, cool-down rainstorm, didn't stink. Kendrick faced one batter over the minimum, regularly landed first-pitch strikes, and stayed around long enough for Jimmy Rollins' second-inning, three-run home run. He threw 44 pitches before the rains came. Thirty-one were strikes.

None of this is good news for Vance Worley, the bespectacled fan darling who took his minor league demotion better than anyone had a right to expect. Worley pitched seven shutout innings for Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night, allowing three hits over 106 pitches, 71 for strikes. Since his demotion - which came after he got rocked by the Mets and then complained about conditioning over being bounced between the bullpen and rotation - Worley has pitched 13 scoreless innings, struck out 15, and allowed only five hits.

They say you can never have too much pitching, but the three-man competition for that fifth spot could potentially produce some trade-deadline chips that were not initially expected. Would you give up the 23-year-old Worley to get a righthanded power bat? Before you say no, remember how you once felt about Kendrick, how sure you were that trading away J.A. Happ would bite the Phillies big time.

Kendrick, still only 26, was 10-4 in 20 starts as a rookie in 2007, with a 3.87 earned run average. Happ is 3-8, 5.04 for the Astros. And while Happ is still only 28 - and lefthanded - his earned run average has climbed steadily since that rookie season when he went 12-4 and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.

The Phillies played their 63rd game last night, and, in more than half of them, they have scored three runs or fewer. With a chance to blow the game open in the third, the Phillies again left the bases loaded. They are incapable of putting together big innings against even the most marginal of pitchers, of which the Cubs offered back-to-back in Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez.

Yeah, that Rodrigo Lopez, the former Phillies spot starter who won seven games and lost 16 for Arizona last year.

Will a righthanded power bat cure that? Werth a try, pun intended. Impossible? Just last year, the Giants bolstered their righthanded power with Pat Burrell and Cody Ross. Both were castoffs. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said again last night he wasn't shopping for a bat right now.

But that doesn't mean he won't be a month from now.

A month from now Blanton might be back pitching as he's capable of. Who knows, maybe Kendrick found something last night. And Worley? Well there's value there, isn't there? With a day-night doubleheader against Florida looming on Wednesday, both Worley and Kendrick are likely to get starts. Thorny situation = rose? Or two?

Here's the one certainty: For a team 11 games over .500 with a decent first-place lead (at least for this time of the year), the Phillies have more intriguing subplots on most nights than runs on the board.

And potentially more trade options than you, I or perhaps Amaro originally expected. *

Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

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