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Manuel gets his rants on one loss at a time

Everyone bought into the Phillies as a chic pick this year. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, in fact, promised they would be "the team to beat" in the National League East. Ryan Howard was coming off an MVP season and the pitching staff had added Freddy Garcia. So what's happened?

The Phils are a mess and Charlie Manuel has a huge lead in the first-manager-to-be-fired sweepstakes. They dropped 10 of their first 13 games, equaling their worst start since 1997. Howard, batting just .213, sprained a knee ligament trying to beat out a double-play grounder in the 10th inning of Wednesday's 13-inning defeat in Washington.

After an 8-1 loss to the Mets on Tuesday night, Manuel challenged Philadelphia radio talk-show host Howard Eskin to a fight in his office in a profanity-laced tirade. Eskin, who Manuel said has badgered him for three years, persisted in asking why Manuel wasn't having a Lou Piniella-type outburst in front of his team to shake it out of its doldrums. Manuel told him to come back to his office after the press conference was over and they'd talk some more.

The two met behind closed doors -- with screaming audible outside -- and Manuel then had to be restrained from going after Eskin when the two locked eyes in the clubhouse a few minutes later.

Manuel stood by his words the next day and took umbrage with the idea he's running a loose clubhouse.

"I've still got that same passion," Manuel said. "It all gets back to people don't know me. They don't take the time. They see me around the ballpark and say, 'Look, there's Good Time Charlie or Take It Easy Charlie, Laid-Back Charlie, Uncle Charlie, Grandpa Charlie . . . whatever."

General Manager Pat Gillick told the Philadelphia Inquirer he's still behind Manuel, even though the manager is in the final year of his contract. It sounded like the kiss-of-death vote of confidence.

"Basically, the manager usually gets the heat because the team doesn't start well," Gillick said. "But, you know, I think the responsibility lies as much with the players as it does with the manager right now. There certainly was sufficient opportunity for us to win some games and score more runs than we have, and thus far we haven't done it."

Manuel had a couple of good eruptions during his days as the manager in Cleveland, at one point having the couches and table tennis set removed from the clubhouse because he felt things were becoming too much of a country club.

Still, all his ranting and raving probably isn't going to save this outfit. The Phillies entered the weekend with a team ERA of 5.14 -- last in the NL -- and Opening Day starter Brett Myers has already been shipped to the bullpen after going 0-2, 9.39 in three starts. Last winter, the Phils couldn't get Alfonso Soriano and their biggest move to was get Garcia, who has been sidelined by biceps tendinitis. He allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings in his first start, the game that saw Manuel erupt afterward.

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>Remembering Virginia Tech

Like every segment of society, the game was touched by Monday's mass murder at Virginia Tech. Mets third baseman David Wright was in a frenzy trying to reach his younger brother, a student at Tech, but his mother got to him first to find out he was not in the area of the shootings.

In the aftermath, baseball tributes have come from all corners. The Nationals wore Hokies caps during Tuesday's game and White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle wore one during his press conference after Wednesday's no-hitter. Angels pitcher Joe Saunders, who attended Tech from 1999-2002, had "V.T." on his cleats and sketched the school's "VT" logo in the dirt on the back of the mound during his start Friday night.

One of the most touching remembrances came from Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson on his ESPN Insider blog. One of the victims, 25-year-old Brian Bluhm, was a huge Detroit fan and had e-mailed a question to Granderson earlier this month that the player had not used in his reader feedback portion. Granderson revived the question Wednesday ("What are your personal and team goals for the season?") and then answered it in a tribute to Bluhm.

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>Boston's other import

For all the talk about Daisuke Matzusaka's strong start, the Red Sox are equally thrilled with the work by Japanese reliever Hideki Okajima. He entered the weekend with a 1.35 ERA and was holding opponents to an .091 batting average in six outings.

"With the confidence he's getting in his change-up, this guy is a weapon," manager Terry Francona said Tuesday in Toronto. "He's a veteran pitcher. He locates his fastball, throws a very good change-up and even though he's left-handed he can be tough on right-handers. That's something you don't see that's great to have."

Speaking of the Sox, it looks like pitcher Jon Lester will make a rehab start for Pawtucket on Wednesday at noon in Rochester. Lester, who was sidelined late last season when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, has gone through his rounds of chemotherapy and has been pitching this year in Class A ball.

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>New touch in Toronto

The Blue Jays continue to make improvements in Rogers Centre, although most of this season's projects (like finally giving the visiting team a major-league clubhouse after all these years) are largely infrastructure issues not seen by fans. One big change you can check out is a new team shop on the first-base side of the 100 level by Gate 5.

It includes an incredible cap display featuring every imaginable style of Jays hat, although it would be nice to see some hats of other teams there too. Still, the display is set against a giant mural backdrop of a capacity crowd in the ballpark and there's a plasma TV at the top of the wall showing a video of the team's great moments. A neat touch.

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>Around the horn

* Still trying to figure out who overpaid worse over the winter -- the Dodgers for Jason Schmidt or the Giants for Barry Zito. When will people learn that this kind of money for pitchers is just not worth it?

* Weekly Elias Sports Bureau gem: When the Indians beat the White Sox last Sunday despite collecting just one hit (Grady Sizemore's first-inning double), they became the first team in nearly 55 years to do that when the hit was by their leadoff batter. On April 23, 1952, the only hit for the St. Louis Browns in a 1-0 win over Cleveland was a first-inning triple by Bobby Young off Bob Feller. Young later scored on an error.

* The flying pizza in the stands as Angels left fielder Garrett Anderson chased a foul pop-up Monday at Fenway Park is a sensation on YouTube (check out the video on the Inside Pitch blog at Buffalonews.com). Angels manager Mike Scioscia joked that he was glad it was a thin slice and not the deep-dish specials of his favorite Chicago pizza joint.

"I tell you what, if that was Gino's East, that guy who threw it might have been arrested for assault," Scioscia said. "Those things, man, you drop one on your toes, you'll be in a cast."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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