NEW YORK - Tom Gordon spent the offseason trying to regain the arm strength that dissipated during his first season as the Phillies' closer.

He's got the strength back. Now, he just needs to get sharper.

"He's been behind the eight-ball a little bit," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.

Gordon, 39, started pitching from the windup over the winter for the first time since 1997, the year before he became a full-time reliever. He has abandoned that strategy and has returned to a stretch-only approach.

He looked very strong when he saved Wednesday's win here.

"Now, it's just finding a rhythm," Gordon said.

Losing a week in spring training to forearm and elbow tightness kept Gordon from exiting spring as ready as he hoped to be, and reverting to the stretch-only delivery didn't help.

"Going back to the windup maybe set me back a little bit," Gordon said. "A lot of times I didn't feel good in spring training. I'm going to go back to being me."

Well, deliverywise, he'll go back. Gordon's springtime admission to team medical personnel might have cost him a few appearances but it earned him greater trust of manger Charlie Manuel and Dubee.

Gordon fought through shoulder stiffness in June 2006, a decision rooted in his reluctance to tax a shaky bullpen and in his own ego. At 38, he was returning to a closer's role after setting up for four seasons, and his durability was questioned.

Manuel insisted in spring training this year that he would not use Gordon 3 consecutive days. Manuel has modified that stance; he now will use Gordon in three straight if the first two outings are shortish, 10- or 12-pitch appearances.

"Last year, to be honest with you, I did try to prove something," Gordon said. "That's when being a knucklehead comes in. At this point, you've got to listen to your body. I am going to tell them if I don't feel good."

For the first time in 10 months, he said, he feels good.

Sickened

Before his ninth-inning double last night off Billy Wagner, lefty slugger Ryan Howard struck out twice against Mets lefthander Tom Glavine. He is 2-for-18 with nine strikeouts and five walks against lefties this season, the main reason he's hitting .212.

Before his ninth-inning double last night off Billy Wagner, lefty slugger Ryan Howard struck out twice against Mets lefthander Tom Glavine. He is 2-for-18 with nine strikeouts and five walks against lefties this season, the main reason he's hitting .212.

He's hitting 5-for-15 with three strikeouts and six walks against righthanders. His only homer has come against a righthander.

"I didn't see many lefties in spring training," Howard explained.

"Maybe that will get him going," Charlie Manuel said.

Except that doesn't really explain it.

Howard hit .148 with one homer, six RBI and 26 strikeouts and two walks against lefties in 2005, as they pounded him on the inside and faded sliders away. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award anyway, hitting .323 with 21 homers and 57 RBI against righties.

He appeared to have adjusted last season. Sixteen of his team-record 58 homers came against lefties, whom he punished with quick hands if they tested him tight or by extending his arms and staying back on the ball and punching it 350 feet if they teased him away. He hit .279, drove in 45 runs and struck out 76 times, walking 22.

Now, he's jumping at everything lefties throw.

Charlie Manuel isn't fretting.

"He was having a hard time against lefties [last season] until he got sick in Cincinnati," Manuel said.

On May 14, Howard fought off food poisoning and came off the bench for a pinch-hit solo homer off lefty Brandon Claussen in the eighth to force extra innings. He then won it with a solo shot in the 12th off lefty Chris Hammond.

Maybe Howard needs to order some Cincinnati takeout.

Prospect suspended

The Phillies were red-faced last week when they were notified that Class A second baseman Hector Made, 22, would be suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in spring training. Major League Baseball announced the suspension yesterday.

The Phillies were red-faced last week when they were notified that Class A second baseman Hector Made, 22, would be suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in spring training. Major League Baseball announced the suspension yesterday.

"It's a disappointment," said Mike Arbuckle, the team's assistant general manager in charge of player development. "All the time you spend educating these players . . . "

The Phillies acquired Made from the Yankees in July for catcher Sal Fasano. Considered a middling prospect, Made, a Dominican who has never played above Class A, is a .271 hitter in five pro seasons, with little power. He will not appeal, Arbuckle said.

Arbuckle said the suspension will not affect Made's future with the team: "Hopefully, he gets his ship righted."

He is the first Phillie suspended for using a banned substance since Double A first baseman Randy Ruiz was suspended twice in 2005.

Ump sidelined

First-base umpire Jerry Layne was a last-minute scratch last night, leaving the teams to play with three umps. *

First-base umpire Jerry Layne was a last-minute scratch last night, leaving the teams to play with three umps. *