In what has become an annual tradition, the Phillies began the regular season marathon by falling flat on their faces. In staking the best teams in their own division to a five-game lead, the Phils have quickly squandered the optimism of their fans and exposed themselves as underdogs rather than favorites in the NL East.

When Jimmy Rollins boldly proclaimed his Phillies to be divisional favorites this spring, his fans and teammates supported the notion. Sure, Rollins' strong words may have fired up the Mets as much as the Phillies, but a little swagger is exactly what you want from your stars. Unfortunately, his teammates did not translate their verbal support into performance on the field. Tentative, they pressed and choked in the early going, stranding more runners than the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill in a heat wave.

Where do the reeling Phillies go from here? The first thing Pat Gillick has to address is whether or not Charlie Manuel is the right man to manage the team.

Many baseball observers suspected that Manuel would be let go over the winter, but the Fightins spirited surge in the second half earned him another chance. Still, Gillick appears to have hedged his bets with the off-season coaching additions of long-time baseball men Jimy Williams and Davey Lopes. Much of the blame for missing the 2006 playoffs was put on the Phillies early woes, so even as Gillick gave Manuel a vote of confidence, he spoke openly of the importance of starting strong in 2007.

Unfortunately, Charlie Manuel hasn't made the most of his second chance. The Phillies have played tight as a drum while losing these early games, raising the mercury under Uncle Charlie's already piping hot seat. Manuel's strong point has never been game-flow strategy. Instead he is known to be a player's manager, a folksy father figure who keeps his team loose and positive. Given that his players have played anything but loose, his principal advantage has evaporated, leaving his weaknesses more exposed.

There can be little doubt that Manuel does not prepare his team well enough in spring training, which has to be as frustrating for Gillick as it was for the fans. How could the Phillies be so disastrous on the base paths after so much emphasis in the Grapefruit games on improving the running game? A good manager makes it crystal clear who can run and when, so how does Shane Victorino give himself a green light to steal third base with MVP Ryan Howard at the plate? Why do the Phillies look like keystone cops in the infield in the early going for the second year in a row? And is it really a surprise that Manuel's open doubts about his own bullpen became a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Aware that Gillick placed special emphasis on starting strong, Manuel failed to inspire or prepare his team to win a few for the gipper. When Charlie switched Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the order on opening day, the two of them responded with their weakest week in two years. His decision to use Ryan Madson again in the second game of the season after losing the home opener in dramatic fashion raised the stakes for Madson personally. Sure, you want to show confidence in your set-up guy, but the move backfired and left Mad Dog the pitcher of record for both losses, damaging his confidence and landing him in the fans' doghouse.

The Phillies can't afford to stake their competition to a commanding lead. At yet, given the chance to spoil Mets home opener and gain some ground, they melted down again. New York's announcer Keith Hernandez put it bluntly when he said the Phillies were having a nervous breakdown right before their eyes. And how!

Five games is often all that separates a team from making the playoffs and going home. As Gillick himself said this past week, the first regular season games count just as much as the last ones. There's something to be said for giving a guy a fair shot, but another week like this one and Gillick should make a change.

Shakespeare's Macbeth may have said it best. "And if it were done when 'tis done, then t'were well it were done quickly".

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