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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Phillies, Rangers eagerly await return of Utley, Hamilton


PHILADELPHIA -- One guy isn't supposed to change a team.

One guy isn't supposed to be the difference between winning and losing, the difference between scoring runs and not scoring runs.

We've heard that. We know that. And yet when we watch the Phillies and Rangers play this weekend, we're just not sure how true it is.

One guy is missing from each of these lineups, and these teams aren't the same.

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One guy is about to come back to each of these lineups, and we're pretty sure these teams are about to get much better.

The Phillies have stayed in first place without Chase Utley, but May has been a struggle and fans are starting to panic. Now Utley, who has missed the first seven weeks of the season with a knee problem, is on the verge of joining the lineup -- he could be back Monday night.

The Rangers have stayed in first place without Josh Hamilton, but only because the rest of the American League West has allowed them to. Texas is well under .500 since he broke his arm on April 12, and fans there are starting to panic too. Now Hamilton is on the verge of joining the lineup -- he should be back Monday night.

These two teams are so good, they could end up in the World Series. And these are two players are so good, they could be MVP candidates every year.

It's a shame they're not playing against each other this weekend. It's the best of news for their teams that they're coming back soon.

Phillies 2B Chase Utley, who's rehab assignment began May 10, must be activated by May 30 unless he physically can't play. (Getty Images)  
Phillies 2B Chase Utley, who's rehab assignment began May 10, must be activated by May 30 unless he physically can't play. (Getty Images)  
"It's very similar," said Cliff Lee, who knows better than most what Utley and Hamilton mean to a team. "They're both the heart and soul of each team. They're the best players on the best teams.

"We might need Chase back more than they need Josh. But maybe I'm only saying that because I'm a Phillie."

Without Utley, who normally bats third, the Phillies' batting order has been a mess. Manager Charlie Manuel tried to put Jimmy Rollins there, but that really didn't work. Now he has Placido Polanco batting third, but that lineup isn't producing, either.

The Phillies are last in the league in RBI out of the third spot, with only 11 in 43 games.

With Hamilton batting third for the first 10 games this year, the Rangers went 9-1 and scored six runs a game. He was hurt in the first inning on April 12, and starting with that game, the team went 14-20 over its first 34 games without him, averaging 4.1 runs a game.

"I wish we were producing like they're producing," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro said Friday, after a stretch where his team scored just 10 runs in six games.

Remember, though, that the Rangers are a team built on offense. If you picked them to win (and I did), you did it because you thought they'd out-hit any pitching weaknesses.

With Hamilton out, and recently with Nelson Cruz on the disabled list as well (Cruz is also due back Monday), the Rangers are playing closer games and putting more pressure on a bullpen that hasn't always handled it well.

"I think we might have produced a few more runs, with [Hamilton] in the lineup," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He takes the pressure off the other guys. They get out of their game [when he's not there], trying to do more.

"When you've got people you trust around you, pretty soon you start trusting each other."

Thanks to Michael Young, who batted third for much of Hamilton's absence (Ian Kinsler has hit there more recently), the Rangers have continued to get some production from the middle of the order. They're still third in baseball in RBI out of the third spot.

Young helped set the tone after Hamilton was hurt, insisting the Rangers wouldn't use the injury as an excuse for not winning.

"Last year, we kind of established to ourselves that we're a winning team," Young said. "We expect to get W's. That's part of the job."

The Phillies have won their division four straight years. They have that attitude as much as any team.

And yet, every day it becomes more obvious that without Utley they're just not the same.

"I think it changes the dynamic of the lineup," Amaro said. "Are guys pressing because we don't have the firepower? Who knows?"

We don’t know, and we've been taught to believe that in baseball, one guy shouldn't make that much of a difference.

But when that one guy is Chase Utley or Josh Hamilton, there's a huge difference.

How much of a difference?

Check back next week, when Utley and Hamilton come back. We'll let you know.


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