THE PHILLIES promoted it as a Rooftop Thursday, but they finished the day in the basement.

The Braves swept the Phillies' opening series with an 8-4 win yesterday, sending home cold and empty the 30,062 who endured flurries in 40-degree weather. Every other team in the National League East has a win, including the 2-1 Marlins, whom the Phillies visit for three beginning tonight.

For the third straight game, the Phillies failed to cash in on the love affair with the city sparked by spunky play the last 2 months of last season. The players only hope the fans don't abandon them.

"I don't think so," said fearless centerfielder Aaron Rowand, whose face-crash into the wall last season made him a folk hero. "There's a lot of exciting baseball left in this squad. I mean, it's three games."

It was three tough games.

Bullpen blowups and feeble offense cost them wins Monday and Wednesday, extra-inning losses in which the Phillies led late and wasted strong starts from Brett Myers, then Cole Hamels.

Yesterday, Adam Eaton allowed eight runs and didn't get out of the fifth, during which he surrendered six. The rally began with a walk to pitcher Chuck James, the first of two. Eaton's day ended with Jeff Francoeur's RBI single, the fourth hit allowed in the inning. Eaton was tagged with two more runs when reliever Joe Bisenius allowed a two-run double to Scott Thorman.

Eaton consistently shrugged off his spotty spring, during which he compiled a 7.91 earned run average. It's 13.50 now.

Similarly, National League MVP Ryan Howard minimized his .221 spring average and the way he slid to a 6-for-43 finish with 22 strikeouts.

Hitless in four at-bats yesterday, all with runners in scoring position, Howard went 2-for-11 with four strikeouts in the series, and he's nowhere near finding the swing that brought him 58 homers in 2006.

"I'm not too happy about it. It's not where I want it to be," Howard said.

The swing, like the winning, will come.

"Nobody's jumping ship and panicking. It'll get right," Howard said, lashing out a bit at questions concerning the team's high expectations and its immediate failure to meet them.

"It's very magnified. When you hear about it every day, it's not hard as much as it is annoying," he said.

The questions change, of course, when the results change, and these results have grown common in Philadelphia.

Last season, the Cardinals swept the Phillies' season-opening series. The Phillies proceeded to lose six of their first seven en route their second straight 10-14 April, which set up their second straight failed run at the NL wild card.

In the past two sluggish Aprils, the Phillies, built for offense, struggled to score runs consistently. They were held to three runs or fewer 11 times in each of the last two Aprils, going 1-10 in 2006, 3-8 in 2005.

They lost Monday, 5-3, and Wednesday, 3-2. Yesterday, they had two runs before two Braves relievers walked five Phillies in the ninth. Despite all those walks, inexperienced catcher Carlos Ruiz swung at the first pitch newly inserted Rafael Soriano threw. He popped out to shortstop.

Manager Charlie Manuel said he didn't want his team just ready to play in April. He wanted them ready to win.

He has received neither thus far. And it's not just the bullpen, or the hitting.

Howard - a defensive talent whose lack of fundamental soundness led the Phils to concentrate on tutoring him this spring - committed his second error of the season in the first inning. He threw what would have been an inning-ending doubleplay ball into leftfield, failing to set his feet, a consistent bugaboo since he hit the majors. The error led to two runs. In the eighth inning Wednesday, the Phillies, ahead by two runs, ran into two outs on the basepaths.

Not everyone is flailing. Chase Utley, at .357, is doing his part. Jimmy Rollins is hitting .364 with a .533 on-base percentage, and Pat Burrell also is at .364.

It takes tighter defense, better pitching, better situational hitting. The Phillies stranded 32 runners in these three games.

Yes, it is the same stuff that made them a seller at last year's trading deadline; the same stuff that cost them when the Cardinals rolled them at home in April.

"Nobody likes to start a season 0-3 at home," Manuel said. "Then again, maybe that's a good measure for your team."

A measure, the Phillies hope, that is not totally accurate.

"Flip a coin, and we come out of this 2-1," Rowand said. "Would we have liked to come out of here 3-0? Yes. But they saw us do it last year."

They also saw them miss the playoffs for the 13th straight year. *