One month in, the questions remain the same

Through five starts, Cole Hamels is averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. (Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer)

The most interesting stat I looked up last night in the wake of the Phillies' 6-3 loss to the Cardinals was this:

The Phillies are now 1-11 in games in which Roy Halladay doesn't pitch and they score fewer than seven runs.

The one exception came in a game started by Nelson Figueroa.

Including Halladay's starts, they are 3-11 in games in which they score under seven runs.

That might sound dire. Needing to score at least seven runs to win a game in which your ace isn't pitching doesn't sound sustainable.

But try this one on for size: In their first 25 games of 2009, the Phillies were 4-10 in games in which they scored fewer than seven runs.

Point is, while much of the hand-wringing about the Phillies' pitching staff is warranted, their performance through 25 games is hardly unprecedented.

And while we might think we have a pretty good handle on how this season will unfold based on its first 25 games, the reality is we know nothing more than we did when spring training broke.

We knew Halladay would be a horse. We knew the Phillies were thin on depth in the rotation and in the bullpen. We knew they would score runs.

Beyond that, the question marks remain the same.

You can view that with optimism or pessimism.

1) Cole Hamels

Hamels' situation is the ultimate paradox. His results through five starts aren't much different than they were in 32 last season, at least in terms of ERA and wins and losses. But at the same time, he looks close to becoming the dominant starter the Phillies have long envisioned, perhaps closer than he has at any point in his career.

Through five starts, he is averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, nearly 3 more than he averaged in 2008 and 2009. His new cutter is a big reason for that. It has all the makings of a serious weapon.

But he also looks like a pitcher who is still developing. He has walked 2.9 batters per nine and allowed 2.1 home runs-per-nine. The numbers are similar to what they were his rookie year, when he struck out a career-high 9.9 per nine, walked a career-high 3.3 per nine, and allowed a career-high 1.3 HR/9.

The pessimistic viewpoint is that a World Series contender can't afford to have its No. 2 starter in development. The optimistic viewpoint is that Hamels is at the tail end of that development, and seems to be a half-inch away from becoming the second top-of-the-rotation horse the Phillies hoped for in the offseason.

It might sound like a lot of pressure to put on Hamels, but it is the pressure the Phillies chose to put on him when they traded away Cliff Lee in the offseason.

Tonight, he squares off against a 2009 Cy Young finalist for the second straight start in Adam Wainwright. These are the types of duels the Phillies will need him to win if they advance to the postseason. Last week, he battled Tim Lincecum even through five, but gave up three runs in the sixth.

One month into the season, it is still reasonable to think that the Phillies' fates will mirror that of their young No. 2.

2) Brad Lidge

At this point, it is still impossible to tell how last night's 6-3 loss to the Cardinals would have played a month from now.

If righthander Joe Blanton weren't coming off a month-long layoff, would he have allowed three runs in that inning?

If Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero were both in their ideal roles, would Blanton have started the seventh? And even if Blanton started the seventh, would Charile Manuel have called on Jose Contreras, his other swing-and-miss option, instead of Figueroa, a long reliever/spot starter who was never supposed to be a guy who works out of pivotal jams?

If Manuel had complete confidence in Lidge and Romero, there is a good chance that Contreras ends up getting the call in the seventh, followed by some combination of Romero and Danys Baez or David Herndon in the eighth, followed by Lidge in the ninth and Figueroa in extras.

The good news is that Manuel seems ready to go with Lidge as his closer after the veteran righthander struck out two of the four batters he faced in a low-pressure situation in the ninth.

What's unknown is how Lidge will respond. He clearly looked ready to go last night. His fastball never dipped below 93. It touched 95. He located his slider for called strikes. He made one bad pitch (at least to the naked eye), a slider that Matt Holliday clubbed for a double.

If Lidge looks like that in tight games, the Phillies will have a formidable combination of Contreras/Lidge in the eighth and ninth. With Blanton back in the fold and getting his usual 6 to 7 innings, and Halladay pitching once every fifth day, Chad Durbin will be fresher and more consistently available in the seventh.

But Lidge is a lot like Hamels: a pivotal player who has shown positive signs, but whose ultimate fate remains to be seen.

3) Antonio Bastardo

Here's another interesting stat that matches our expectations coming out of spring training: In 25 games, lefty relievers have pitched just seven innings for the Phillies. Only two NL teams have gotten less production from the left side of their bullpen: Padres lefties have thrown four innings, while Diamondbacks lefties have thrown three.

Here is the complete list:

ATL: 30.2
WSN: 12.1
FLA: 10.0
STL: 11.1
SFG: 20.0
COL: 24.0
SDP: 4.0
MIL: 27.2
LAD: 11.2
CHC: 30.2
NYM: 30.0
CIN: 17.2
HOU: 9.2
PHI: 7.0
ARI: 3.0
PIT: 39.0

I point this out because the Phillies never really had a chance to see what young lefty Antonio Bastardo could do with a full workload. At the start of the season, it seemed like one of the hidden benefits of having J.C. Romero on the disabled list: throw the young fireballer into the fire, and see how he reacts. If he falters, well, at least you gave him a chance. If he succeeds, you suddenly have another hard-throwing pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff as an option should Lidge, Contreras or Romero falter.

But after using Bastardo in each of the first three games of the season, the Phillies called on him just four more times before optioning him to Lehigh Valley to make room for Lidge on the active roster.

He went 2-for-2 in save situations, picking up two holds. He stranded both of the runners he inherited, including a man on second with one out in a save situation agaisnt the Nationals, and a man on second with one out of a tie game against the Diamondbacks. But he pitched just 5.1 innings, 2.2 of which came when they were ahead 10, ahead seven, and down by four.

We knew Bastardo had a tendency to put runners on base, and he walked four batters. We knew he had an excellent fastball and improving slider, and he struck out five and allowed just one extra base hit.

What we didn't know was how he would respond when consistently exposed to high-pressure situations.

It's hard to fault Manuel for managing to win games now. And a manager can't invent situations to get his young kid into the game. But the fact remains, we didn't know if Bastardo would develop into a legitimate back-up plan at the back of the bullpen when the season started, and we still don't.

4) J.C. Romero

Speaking of Romero. . .it is still unclear how comfortable the Phillies are with the newly-rehabbed lefty in the types of situations he used to pitch for them. In 2008, Manuel might have called on Romero in the seventh inning instead of Nelson Figueroa. He said after the game that Romero might have been an option in the eighth against some lefties. But keep in mind that the Phillies did not pay Romero $4 million a year to be a true lefty specialist.

Scott Eyre was a true lefty specialist. Last season, 67 of his 128 plate appearances were against lefties. He averaged one strikeout every 6.1 plate appearances against righties, compared with one every 5.6 against lefties.

Romero is deadly against lefties, there is no doubt. But in 2008, his last full healthy season, 57 percent of his appearances came against right-handed hitters. He walked righties at a far greater rate, and gave up home runs to them at a greater rate too. But he struck out RHBs once every 5.1 plate appearances, compared with LHBs once every 4.625.

In 2008, he pitched at least one full inning in 37 of his 81 appearances. When Ryan Madson was unavailable, he would pitch the eighth inning. Many times, he would pitch the entire seventh.

Manuel mentioned last night in his post-game press conference that he thought Romero "was close" to being ready to go an inning.

A month from now, would Manuel have kept Blanton in the dugout to start the seventh and replaced him with Romero? Would he have called on Romero instead of Figueroa with two outs and two on?

We didn't know at the end of spring training, and we still don't.