Senior Baseball Columnist

Phillies scramble to fill holes left by Utley, Howard

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With injuries plaguing the lineup, manager Charlie Manual must juggle the roster to fill spots. (US Presswire)  
With injuries plaguing the lineup, manager Charlie Manual must juggle the roster to fill spots. (US Presswire)  

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley's mouth moved, but very few definitive answers emerged. And the ominously uncertain spring of the Philadelphia Phillies continues.

For a second consecutive year, they will open the season without their five-time All-Star second baseman because his knees won't allow him to play.

What's worse is that the questions now hounding Utley are more philosophical than immediate. Such as: Will he ever be the same player again? Or, at 33 and with the knees of a much older man, is Utley doomed to provide seriously diminishing returns in the final two years ($30 million total) of the seven-year deal he signed in 2007?

He promises he will play again this year, but cannot say when.

He says his left knee already is feeling better after spending a few days of performing new exercises recommended by Phoenix-based physical therapist Brett Fischer, but he doesn't even know when he'll swing a bat again.

He says "there are some things I'm happy with", but says "some things I'm disappointed with."

"I'm upset," said Utley in what could be his last public appearance for, well, who the heck knows? Could be weeks. Or months. "I'm not happy I'm in this situation right now, but I'm not going to let that deter me and get me down."

In the Phillies' spring of pain, even simple arithmetic like two plus two is impossible. Because sooner or later, one of the two involves Utley and Ryan Howard.

And with Howard not coming back before May or June from that Achilles tear of last October, the Phillies are looking at a 2012 season without the right side of their infield for the foreseeable future.

"We haven't had a full lineup for four years," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said pointedly Sunday morning. "I hear people talking about other teams being banged up. Go back and check. We haven't had our lineup in four years.

"I don't make a big deal about it. We expect our other guys to step up on the field."

Manuel is working overtime with that concept right now. It's everybody in the pool, including Jim Thome, 41, who played first base in Sunday's Grapefruit League game against Baltimore.

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"I'm excited," Thome said, oiling up his first base glove this spring. "It's going good."

Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry and Thome will figure into the mix at first during Howard's absence. Right now, young shortstop Freddy Galvis is playing second.

"Who else we got?" Manuel asked.

The Phillies have scouts fanned out across Florida and Arizona like campaign volunteers, looking for infield help, hoping somebody like Detroit's Danny Worth becomes available over the spring's final week.

Fixing cracks with caulk and sandpaper has become a Phillies strength. Their entire regular lineup played together only 18 times last season. In 2010, shortstop Jimmy Rollins spent two stints on the disabled list with a calf strain, and Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Madson and others all missed significant time. In 2009 Ruiz was sidelined with an oblique strain, in 2008 it was Shane Victorino with a calf injury. ...

Truth be told, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels on the mound, Manuel probably could trot out the Seven Dwarfs and contend, even if the NL East has gotten stronger this year.

"We've always had a couple of guys banged up," Hamels says. "Almost every guy in our lineup has been an All-Star.

"If we were a young team, yeah, we'd worry. But we know how to go out and win."

Says Victorino: "The one thing that's more important than anything is that when those guys get back, they're back 100 percent and nothing happens."

Utley vows to take things slow to make sure that happens. But listening to him talk under the hot Florida sun Sunday, you didn't exactly get the impression that there's a clear diagnosis and a foolproof plan.

More worrisome, the Phillies themselves seem to be mostly in the dark. They've gone from calling his troubled bone inflammation to patellar tendinitis to chondromalacia, a roughening of the cartilage underneath the patella. Even Utley, who has mostly kept information about his knees locked in the vault, said Sunday he doesn't have patellar tendinitis.

"I'm going to go at the pace my knee tells me," he said, and if only Manuel could coach Utley's knee on what to say. "If it feels good, I'll continue to move forward. If it acts up, I'm going to slow it down a little bit."

He also said, "I truly believe I can get past this and contribute for awhile. It's going to take time. One thing I can't do is rush it. The more I don't listen to my knee, the worse it's going to become."

For now, he is not having any surgery or taking any injections. Unless he knows of a surgery with a 100 percent success rate, Utley said, he's not interested.

So he'll continue with therapy, stretching and "mobilization." He'll learn new ways to move, whatever that means. What, he's going to walk on his hands?

"It's not that bad," he insisted. "It's not bad enough to have microfracture surgery. It's not bad enough to end my career."

What's bad is that this is one more crack in a body that could make it to just 103 games last season and 115 in 2010. The returns are diminishing. The playing time is decreasing.

For five consecutive seasons, the Phillies have out-run everyone else in the NL East to the finish line.

Now, the only race Utley and Howard could win is a one-legged sack race.

"We've been successful for such a great amount of time, people think we're old because we've had success for five years," Victorino said. "When, in actuality, we're not that old. I'm 31. Chase and Jimmy are 33. That's supposedly the prime in guys' careers."

Utley was supposedly going to be on the field long before now, too.

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