CLEARWATER, Fla. - It wasn't the steering wheel in the chest that has cost reliever Eude Brito as much as it was the airbag upside the head.

Regardless, the lefthander's spring training has been compromised for the second straight season.

On Dec. 19, after playing a game for La Romana in the Dominican Winter League, Brito's attention was diverted as his passenger, another team employee, fiddled with Brito's car stereo. Suddenly, a motorcyclist appeared, driving recklessly, Brito said. He swerved left. His car slammed into a wall.

The car's steering column caught Brito in the chest. The airbag deployed violently, snapping back his neck with such force that he suffered a cut on his forehead. His was the worse injury - his passenger was fine, he said - but it lingers, keeping him out of live action.

X-rays at the hospital indicated nothing more than a muscle strain. Brito, whose winter season ended immediately, wore a whiplash collar for a while, and he was plenty worried. His left arm was severely impaired.

"The first 3 weeks, I couldn't even take a spoon to my mouth to eat," he said.

That symptom subsided, though he still lacks strength in his left arm. Doctors in the Dominican Republic told him he would be fine in 4 weeks, but that was 9 weeks ago.

He was slated to throw live batting practice yesterday, but he wasn't ready. He went for an MRI exam after practice to seek medical clearance.

He realizes that, with an open competition for two bullpen spots, he is missing a chance. Again.

Brito, now 28, missed most of spring training last year playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and was not a real part of the bullpen competition. This year, the accident might cost him.

He has thrown long-toss and he has thrown two bullpen sessions, but continued soreness led the Phillies to shut him down until after the MRI results come in.

"I think I'll be back in a week," Brito said.

Games start in 5 days.

Much ado

Baited by inaccurate presentations of Jimmy Rollins' statement that he believes the Phillies are the best team in the National League East, several Mets players have responded with indignation, including a rhetorical question from Carlos Beltran: "What did they win last year?"

Beltran referred to the Mets' division title, after which they lost to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

Replied baited manager Charlie Manuel yesterday: "St. Louis did win that series, didn't they?"

Sigh.

Phillers

The Phillies won't play an intrasquad game to prepare for their Grapefruit League schedule. Instead, they will use Wednesday's game against Florida State as the warmup. *