CHARLIE MANUEL said he told Chase Utley what might be coming about 10 days ago, and he told Ryan Howard on Sunday. And then the Phillies' manager played his first card of the 2007 baseball season, his first lineup card, with Howard hitting third and Utley hitting fourth.

That it mocks convention is obvious enough. Howard made his MVP run last summer hitting fourth, with Utley soaring in front of him and Pat Burrell struggling behind him. After 58 homers for Howard and all of that, even with Burrell having a tough time, there was no reason to believe this was coming.

But that's Chuck. This really is his team. People dismiss him sometimes, but to do it is to make a serious mistake. It is his team, and it is his way, and Howard is hitting third and Utley is hitting fourth - at least for a look-see.

"I want to see that," Manuel said, after the Phillies' Opening Day loss to Atlanta, 5-3, in 10 innings. "I like it."

And then the manager got to the key point. He said, "I think they're more inclined to pitch to Howard."

That has been the issue for months, the issue of maximizing Howard. The whole notion of Burrell being insufficient lineup protection has been beaten into the ground, but here we are again. That you might want to flop things around, given Burrell's horrendous lifetime numbers against John Smoltz, the Braves' Opening Day starter, is one thing. But this is more than that. While it might not be permanent, this was not a 1-day thing, either.

Before the game, when asked if this was a protection thing, Manuel said, "No, not really . . . " But then, after the game, there it was. Again: "I think they're more inclined to pitch to Howard."

And, we'll see. The first bit of evidence was not promising. The first bit of evidence suggests that this whole protecting-Howard thing does not matter, that Ryan is feared a lot regardless of who is hitting behind him and that teams will act upon that fear accordingly.

The baseball numbers people will tell you that this protection stuff is nonsense, and it certainly was in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game tied at 3-3. With two outs, Shane Victorino doubled into the leftfield corner. Howard, hitting third, strode to the plate as the sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park turned its roar for Victorino's double into something more.

Brayan Pena, the Braves' catcher, looked into the dugout for instructions. Ed Montague, the home-plate umpire, looked into the Braves' dugout, too, searching for manager Bobby Cox and the four fingers held aloft to indicate an intentional walk.

But there was no signal. Reliever Bob Wickman threw Ball 1, and then he threw Ball 2, and then, unable to tantalize Howard into swinging at something stupid, turned the unintentional walk into an intentional walk.

It didn't matter who was hitting next. Tie game, open base, don't let Howard beat you, take your chances with whoever is next. That was true last year when Burrell hitting behind Howard and it was true yesterday with Utley hitting behind Howard.

That Utley popped out foul to third base to end the inning is not the point. That the other team didn't care who was hitting behind Howard is the point.

As Howard said: "I think it just depends on what situations come in the game . . . Teams are still going to do what they're going to do. Teams are going to be careful regardless."

Exactly. So why bother with the lineup flip-flop? Why take RBI opportunities away from Howard by putting such a high on-base percentage guy behind him? Why go against decades of accumulated baseball thinking that your best all-around hitter should hit third? That best-all-around-hitter is clearly Utley on this team, and the lineup produced the most runs in the National League last year. So why tinker?

It even goes against Manuel's long-held belief that you should bunch the speed guys at the top of the lineup. As he acknowledged yesterday: "I like the speed. But, also this way, if we turn the lineup, Howard might get an extra at-bat in the game. Also, putting Utley in between Howard and Burrell gives Utley a chance to run, too."

You can see how that would be the case. As Utley admitted, "I never wanted to run when Ryan was up," for fear of taking the bat out of the slugger's hands in some cases, and for fear of inviting the intentional walk by opening up first base in other cases. When you think about it, there really was no good outcome if Utley ran in front of Howard - and Manuel thinks Utley could possibly steal 30 bases a year if turned loose.

And, well, you wonder. These Phillies will never be thought of as a little-ball team, not as long as Howard, Burrell and Utley are playing in this particular ballpark. At the same time, the franchise and its fan base are desperate for this team to get off to a good start this season. At this point in this team's life cycle, a good start is an imperative.

So, if it really doesn't matter who hits behind Howard - and it really doesn't - then why not configure things so that Utley's speed can be an issue? Why not set yourself up maybe to manufacture the odd run here or there, especially early?

That must be what Manuel is thinking, then: not about protecting Howard, but protecting April. *

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