Inside the Phillies: Chase Utley and Ryan Howard help, but Phillies need healthy pitchers

Chase Utley will soon be freed from the most extended stay on the disabled list of his Phillies career. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)
Chase Utley will soon be freed from the most extended stay on the disabled list of his Phillies career. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 28, 2012

Up in Allentown, Chase Utley became an IronPig for an evening in what was likely his final step before being freed from the most extended stay on the disabled list of his Phillies career.

Down in Clearwater, Fla., Ryan Howard was released from what had to be one of the longest extended spring trainings in franchise history. His surgically repaired left Achilles tendon will be put through a battery of tests Wednesday in Philadelphia and, if all goes well, he will be in the single-A Lakewood BlueClaws' lineup Thursday night for the start of his minor-league rehabilitation.

Finally, the light that could end this terrible stretch of baseball we have been watching since the start of the season.

Finally, the ray of hope this team so desperately needed.

If you fear that the light could be a runaway train and that the hope is false, it's understandable.

The importance of Utley and Howard during the Phillies' divisional dominance over the last half-decade cannot be overestimated. Without them, there is no second World Series trophy.

Utley's quiet, cut-the-jugular approach to the game has been the Phillies' blueprint for winning baseball. His return to the lineup should create excitement in the clubhouse and the ballpark. As magic as Freddy Galvis was with his glove earlier this season, the rookie's bat at its best could not compete with what Utley will do for the Phillies offense.

Howard's return is probably still at least two weeks away, and until we see him play some games, there is no way to know what he might be able to bring to the table less than 10 months after a very serious surgery.

"He still says when he runs he has a little limp," manager Charlie Manuel said before Tuesday's 5-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He says, 'I want to play and I feel like I can play. I don't know if I'll be where you want me or not.' He's got to be able to go play and do some things. He's got to be able to move. He's getting there. He's very positive about where he's at when I talk to him."

Howard's return will make the Phillies lineup and bench better and more powerful. Ty Wigginton wasn't brought here to be an everyday player, but the offense is better when you mix him in for a start or two a week and have his bat on the bench most days.

That gives Manuel the option of the lefthanded-hitting Jim Thome and the righthanded-hitting Wigginton when he needs some pinch-hitting power late in a game.

The news about Utley and Howard will not mean much, however, if two other players do not soon return.

What the Phillies need more than an improved lineup is the return of a dominating starting rotation.

They need a healthy Roy Halladay and a resurgent Cliff Lee. If those two things happen in July, another run for the postseason is entirely possible.

To think that Halladay and Lee can return to form is not a stretch, but it also is not guaranteed.

For Halladay, it's all about how his shoulder responds to the rest and rehab. If he is healthy, he will be good.

With Lee, it's about getting on a hot streak.

"It's not like his stuff is not there, because it is," Manuel said. "He's very capable of pitching much better than that, we know that. It's just one of those things."

A year ago, the Phillies were 6-6 in Lee's first 12 starts and he had a 3.94 ERA. He went 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA in his next five starts, and the Phillies were 16-4 in his final 20 starts. This year, the team is 3-9 after his first 12 starts and he has a 3.72 ERA.

Two years ago, the Phillies were seven games out of first place with a 48-46 record on July 21. If there had been a second wild card, they would have been 3½ games out of that spot with four teams ahead of them.

A week later, they added Roy Oswalt in a trade, and by that time they had taken off. They went 49-19 in their final 68 games and finished with the best record in baseball.

Pitching was the reason. They were 40-12 in games started by Halladay, Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton after July 21.

Substitute Lee for Oswalt, add in the fact that Tuesday night's winner, Vance Worley, has been solid all season, and the potential for a great rotation is still in place.

Going into Tuesday night's game against Pittsburgh, the Phillies were eight games behind the first-place Washington Nationals and 4½ out of the second wild card with six teams ahead of them.

If this year's deficit seems a lot larger even though it is not nearly as late as it was two seasons ago, there's a good reason.

It's called pitching.

The return of Utley and Howard should help the pursuit of a playoff spot.

The return of Halladay and Lee would make it a probability.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow @brookob on Twitter.

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