Bob Ford: Utley's back, but Phils still must play hard

Posted: August 18, 2010

The Phillies were six games over .500 when Chase Utley went on the disabled list on June 29, and 15 games over .500 when he returned to action Tuesday night against the Giants.

That's remarkable enough, given Utley's importance to the team, but harder to believe given the landscape of other injuries that have defined the Phillies' season. While Utley was mending the torn ligament in his right thumb for seven weeks, the Phils were also without Carlos Ruiz for three weeks of that stretch, have been without starting pitcher Jamie Moyer for a month, and have not had Ryan Howard for the last two weeks.

Those are just the more notable recent absences from a team that has placed 15 men on the disabled list this season, including the entire regular infield, three starting pitchers and six relievers, a list that includes the bullpen's closer, the setup man and its only lefthander.

"With the amount of injuries we've had to the pitching staff and the offense, it shows that we're not going to quit," Utley said after Tuesday's 9-3 win.

He was hitless in five at-bats, but said he felt comfortable at the plate and played without pain or limitations. With the exception of Howard, who is just days away from returning, and Moyer, who probably won't be back, the team is finally approaching something resembling good health.

Manager Charlie Manuel was asked before Tuesday's game how he intends to use his second baseman now that he's finally back from thumb surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation.

"I think I'm going to run him out there every day," Manuel said.

A solid plan, and one that might work better in the final months of this season than in the past. In other years, Utley has appeared to lose steam at the end of a long schedule, and the hope is that a silver lining to the injury will be a fresher player at the end.

"When you play every day, you can't help but get worn down," Utley said. "I didn't want the time off, but I think it will be beneficial down the stretch."

It is natural that the organization is counting on Utley, just as it will count on Howard when he comes back. But while it was dangerous for the team to let down when he was missing - which it didn't do - it's just as dangerous to assume everything will be easier now that he is back. Baseball doesn't work that way.

"So far, we've been very fortunate," Manuel said. "We've stayed close, because our starting pitching's been very good. [Getting players back from injury] will help us out, but we have to still play that much harder. We don't want to ease up. We want to keep going and finish strong."

The Phillies have not just stayed afloat, but improved, particularly in the last four weeks. Including Tuesday's win, they have won 19 out of 24 games to climb back into the NL East race with the Braves. The win over the Giants put them in the lead for the postseason wild-card slot.

They did it because of contributions from players who weren't necessarily expected to contribute, because the pitching improved, and because Manuel was able to keep the players in the clubhouse from worrying about what was gone rather than what remained.

"If you're not careful, you start gathering excuses and start looking for things and, to me, it's very important that you stay focused," Manuel said. "You plug people in there and tell them how good they can play. You pat 'em on the back and tell 'em to go get 'em. That's all you can do."

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made his big splashes in the last year with the moves to improve the starting rotation, but a couple of unheralded off-season signings, Wilson Valdez and Ross Gload, have been, among others, an important part of keeping the team going.

"It's a testament to the guys who got a chance to play . . . Everybody's kind of contributed," Amaro said. "It's also a pretty strong testament to how Charlie's handled things. He's pretty even-keel. He stayed the course."

It's a lot easier to stay the course with your all-stars in the lineup, though, and Manuel was happy to welcome one back against the Giants. When he gets Howard back, probably sometime during this 10-game homestand, the manager will be able to put his regular defensive eight on the field for the first time since May 21, and for only the fifth time this season.

That would be nice, but, regardless, the manager will pick out his best lineup, pat 'em on the back and tell 'em how good they can play.

"I think it's very important that I show them I believe that," Manuel said.

And does he always?

"Do I believe it?" Manuel said. "Yeah, most of the time."

On Tuesday night, when he could say it to Chase Utley for the first time in seven weeks, he definitely believed it.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or

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