WHEN THE Phillies added Freddy Garcia to their roster, during the winter meetings back in December, the question being asked was all full of hope and anticipation: Is this the guy who can help the Phils make it to the playoffs for just the second time in 24 years?

Four months sure can be a long time . . .

Garcia finally made his biceps tendinitis-delayed Phillies debut last night and some of the ornaments of that early excitement was in place.

The requisite fan club - Freddy's Kreugers - staked their territory at the top of the upper deck in right.

Most of the pregame focus was on the return of the offseason's signature acquisition.

The reality, though, is that the terms of the debate had changed. The Phillies are off to yet another slow start. The clutch hitting has been largely invisible. The bullpen has been every bit the dicey proposition most thought it would be.

Outlined against that grim backdrop, the angle had shifted. It was no longer whether Garcia would pitch like the postseason hero he was for the White Sox in 2005. It had more to do with whether he could get through the night without having a physical setback and whether he would pitch effectively.

The answers:

Yes and sort of.

The Phillies were stomped by the Mets, 8-1, on a frosty evening at Citizens Bank Park.

That lopsided result had less to do with Garcia's performance - 4 2/3 innings, eight hits, three earned runs, six strikeouts - than it did with the Phillies' continued, baffling impotence (0-for-13) when they have at least one runner within 180 feet of home plate and another sketchy evening for the relievers.

"I felt like Garcia did OK for his first time out," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Once he got loose, he had pretty good stuff."

Said Garcia: "I was ready. I was feeling pretty good. The first couple innings, with the cold weather, I didn't feel my hand very good. But as the game went on, I felt better and better."

Most important, he said he had no doubt that he was beyond the physical problems that surfaced after he was bombed by the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., on March 21, landing him on the disabled list.

"I'm definitely really happy with the trainers," he said. "I've just got to continue doing the things they tell me to do.

"I can't be satisfied because we lost, but we had a lot of chances. I want to pitch every fifth day. And next time, I don't see why I can't go 100, 110 pitches."

Scoreboard velocity readings aren't always reliable, but in his final inning Garcia threw one pitch that was displayed at 93 mph. For most of the night, however, his fastballs were mostly 88 to 90.

Garcia's command was spotty. Whether that was a result of rust or the bone-chilling weather - howling winds and 46 degrees at first pitch - he still threw only 53 of his 95 pitches for strikes.

"I was happy with my fastball," he said. "After the first couple innings, I started to let it go. When the weather gets warmer, it will be different."

Before the game, Manuel said the Phillies would "definitely start having concern" if Garcia got to 75 pitches. So when he finished the fourth with 73 with the Phillies trailing, 2-1, it seemed that his night might be done.

But Geoff Geary, who had been warming up, sat down. And when the pitcher's spot came up in the bottom of the fourth with two outs and a runner on first, the decision was made to try to get another inning out of him.

It didn't work. With one out, pitcher Tom Glavine singled. With two outs, catcher Ramon Castro singled and Carlos Beltran flared a double to left, giving the Mets an insurance run. Garcia was allowed to stay in the game long enough to intentionally walk Carlos Delgado before Geary came in to end the inning by striking out David Wright.

"He threw a little more than I thought he was going to throw," Manuel said.

Then again, considering that the bullpen was tagged for five runs in 4 1/3 innings, it's hard to blame Manuel for wanting to keep his starter in as long as possible.

Especially when, for one scary moment, there seemed to be some question whether he would pitch at all. Garcia had just completed his pregame warmups when he abruptly began walking off the mound and toward the Phillies dugout.

It was if an electric shock had run through the ballpark. It looked for all the world as if the burly righthander, who has been a priority concern since going on the DL, was hurt again.

False alarm. After Mets manager Willie Randolph complained, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson made Garcia exchange the red-and-black glove he'd been wearing and exchange it for a plain black model. Major League Baseball has been cracking down this season, rigidly enforcing the rule that prohibits pitchers from wearing gloves that could confuse hitters.

"It's not a big deal," Garcia said. "They wanted to play with my mind, but if I've got to change, I've got to change. I'm just going to concentrate on pitching."

And how well he pitches? Well, that's still a big deal - a very big deal - to the Phillies. *