A decade ago, former Phillies general manager Ed Wade acquired Andy Ashby in an offseason trade with the San Diego Padres and immediately declared that he had a pair of aces.

Turned out Wade was bluffing.

The Phillies, with Ashby and Curt Schilling, actually had a pair of disgruntled jokers and both were shipped away by Wade before the 2000 trade deadline.

Ten years later, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has three aces and he's not bluffing. The only thing the Phillies have to decide now is how they're going to play their hand for the remainder of the season.

With 26 games left and a fourth straight National League East title up for grabs, manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee must figure out how to best line up their three aces.

It's a luxury they have because starting this week the Phillies are off every Thursday for the remainder of the season provided there is not a rain postponement. With a few minor alterations, they could pitch their three aces Sept. 20, 21, and 22 in what figures to be a pivotal division showdown against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park.

In order to make that possible, the Phillies' starting rotation would have to stay on turn through Sept. 15, then let Oswalt pitch on four days' rest Sept. 17 against Washington while moving Kyle Kendrick back one day, to Sept. 18.

With that move, the Phillies' rotation for the home series later this month against Atlanta would be Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt.

If the Phillies wanted to reduce Kendrick's starts this month to four and increase Oswalt's total to six, they could also set up a rotation that would allow them to pitch Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt, all on an extra day of rest, in the final three-game series of the season at Atlanta.

Asked about his plans before Friday night's game against Milwaukee, Manuel gave a poker-faced non-answer.

"We're going to weigh all our options about what we can do," the manager said.

Manuel said he does not want to overwork Halladay, who is the true staff ace and the man the Phillies will want to use the most in the postseason if they get there.

"You see Roy Halladay and he has 214 innings and he's going to get at least five more starts, so he's going to be up there around 260," Manuel said. "By the time we go to the postseason, he could get to 300 innings."

Halladay has never pitched more than 266 innings in a season, and that was in 2003.

If the Phillies choose to shuffle their rotation to make sure the three aces line up in the final six games against the Braves, they can do so without putting too much stress on any of their stud pitchers.

Halladay would have to pitch on five days' rest in three of his final five starts and on four days' rest twice. Oswalt would be the most impacted because he would have to pitch on four days' rest four times and on five days' rest twice. Hamels would have to pitch on five days' rest three times and four days' rest twice.

That actually works out well because Oswalt has never had any problem pitching on four days' rest. His career ERA is 3.12 on four days' rest and 3.53 on five days' rest. Halladay's career ERA before Saturday night's start against Milwaukee was 3.51 on four days' and 2.63 on five days' rest. Hamels has a 3.45 career ERA on four days' rest and a 3.41 ERA on five days' rest.

With their four days off compared with just three for the Braves, the Phillies have a distinct advantage in setting up their rotation for the showdown series. The way things set up now, the Braves will not be able to pitch Tim Hudson during the three-game series against the Phillies later this month. They are also dealing with an elbow injury that forced Derek Lowe to miss his Friday start against Florida.

In order to set up the rotation so the three aces would each go twice against the Braves, the Phillies would have to use Kendrick and Joe Blanton in each of their final two series with the Washington Nationals.

The question is this: Would the Phillies rather stay on turn and not worry about setting up the rotation against the Braves or do they make sure they have the best arms going against the team they are fighting for the division title? If they stay on turn, the three aces would get some extra rest for the remainder of the season and they'd still have Hamels and Halladay to pitch the final two games of the season in Atlanta if they meant something.

At least for the first of the two series, the best answer is to shuffle Kendrick and go with the three aces. As for the second one, it will depend on where the two teams stand when the Phillies have to decide whether to use Kendrick in a Sept. 24 start against the New York Mets.

Whatever the Phillies decide to do, it appears as if they are better equipped than ever for the postseason because of their pitching. Since Oswalt joined the team, the Phillies were a combined 13-7 in the 20 games those three have started and the three aces had a combined 2.22 ERA going into Halladay's start Saturday against the Brewers.

"In a short series, that's a big advantage for us," Manuel said.

We shall see if those short series also apply to the two three-gamers the Phillies have left with the Braves.

Inside the Phillies:

Read The Inquirer's Phillies blog, The Phillies Zone,

by Bob Brookover and Matt Gelb, at www.philly.com/phillies.

Blog response of the week

Subject: Roy Oswalt denied a chance to pitch a complete game in a late-night start at San Diego.

Response from sackvicknow at 7:31 a.m. Aug. 28: Charlie Manuel must be spending time with Andy Reid. I think he is starting to lose his mind.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover
at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.