No Utley, no Howard better mean fast start for Pence

Posted: March 19, 2012

It's time for a new Hunter Pence T-shirt:

Good spring.

Let's go hit.

Pence's appetite for the spotlight had better be as ravenous as he was for the postgame spread, when Raul Ibanez' game-winning hit prompted Pence to coin his Welcome to Philadelphia phrase.

Because, if Pence doesn't carry the Phillies through April, a sixth straight National League East title could be lost before the team gets a chance to win it.

Chase Utley's chronic knee issues that cost him 62 games last season and have kept him out of every spring training game so far sent Utley to a specialist today.

Meanwhile, Ryan Howard remains in a walking boot 3 weeks after an infection was discovered in his surgically repaired right foot. Howard underwent surgery in October to repair his Achilles' tendon, that he ruptured in the final swing of the Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Like Utley's knee, Howard had chronic issues with his right leg last season.

Howard is entering the first year of a 5-year, $125 million contract extension. Utley is owed $30 million for this season and next.

Howard is 32, and possibly could recover fully. Utley is 33 and is unlikely to be the same scampering menace who became the heart of the franchise.

For the moment, Pence, 28, making $10.4 million on an arbitration settlement deal, must replace them both.

"He pretty much proved he could do that when he came here the second half of last season," said hitting coach Greg Gross. "He was one of the guys who turned the offense around."

Pence arrived via trade with Houston in late July. He batted .324 with 11 home runs and 35 RBI and a .394 on-base percentage. The production numbers project to 33 home runs and 105 RBI over a full season.

However, the production numbers came in a lineup that featured Pence either batting third, in front of Howard, or fifth, behind both Utley and Howard.

Until the weather turns warm, it appears that he be will be afforded the protection of neither of them.

In his five major league seasons, it generally takes Pence about a month to warm up.

For Pence, and for the Phillies faithful, it could be a long, cold April.

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