Phillies' Manuel worries about Pence, the "new guys'' and the injured guys

PHILADELPHIA -- Charlie Manuel, the avuncular and successful Phillies' manager, intersperses his concerns about his team, which are many, with phrases like "We'll be OK,'' "We'll fight,'' and the more frequent, "We should be OK.''

The reality is, Manuel can't be sure it'll all turn out all right because he doesn't know when stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will return from injury, he doesn't know when his team of many "new guys'' (his phrase) will coalesce and he can't be sure the current band will ever loosen up to his liking.

Between all the positive remarks are a lot of words of worry for the Phillies, who are now 21-23 and in last place in the N.L. East. "We've got to win some games,'' Manuel said before their fourth straight defeat. "We've got to play better.''

Then, he concluded, "We're a little tight.''

He said it's hard asking backups to be regular players, complementary players to be stars and new players to fit in immediately. The Phillies are a team with a strong and strong-willed nucleus, but without the two biggest stars of their lineup, they seem like a shell of themselves in some ways. And with Jimmy Rollins out on paternity leave, their lineup tonight was an unfamiliar mix with players who signed originally to minor-league deals or were cast aside elsewhere.

Manuel is worried about everyone but he seems especially worried about his fill-in cleanup hitter Hunter Pence, who leads the team in home runs (10) and RBIs (28) but isn't really a cleanup hitter. Pence is doing a fair amount but Manuel worries about him trying to do too much. "He's a hard guy to get to relax,'' Manuel concluded.

But Manuel has bigger worries than Pence, who except for the .232 batting average with runners in scoring position would appear to be having a pretty nice year for the Phillies. Manuel worries a lot these days. He especially worries about the mix.

"When we get new players, they have to blend in. We have guys who don't really fit because they are new,'' Manuel said.

The Phillies have been spoiled by their superb nucleus, several of whom rose through the ranks together. But now the two most vital everyday pieces are out of the lineup, Howard and Utley, and no one will say when they'll be back. Manuel claims not to have a clue about that. "I haven't heard a date. They're not even giving us a ballpark,'' Manuel said.

When might he know? "When they start playing games, '' he said, "we'll know more about it.''

But Manuel doesn't suggest there's optimism there. He points out it's Howard's left foot that's hurt, the push-off foot. Utley is taking grounders, but he's been doing that off and on since spring training. His situation seems even murkier than Howard's. 'We're a good ways off,'' he said.

Manuel said they miss Utley from "a lineup standpoint'' and also from "a unity and attitude standpoint.'' Utley is said to lead by example, but right now all he can do is sit and watch the games. (Howard is working out in Clearwater, the Phillies' spring site.)

Manuel worries that there might not be time for them by the time Howard and Utley return. "We've got to play a lot better than .500,'' Manuel declared. "We've got to stay within striking distance. We can't get too far behind. We will be chasing four teams, and then we've got to climb over four.'' 

Manuel's mood was surely a bit better only three days ago, when the Phillies were riding a six-game winning streak and before they began their four-game slide. Things can turn in a hurry.

"As long as we stay with the right mindset, we should be OK,'' Manuel said. He says it like he's trying to convince others. But maybe also himself a little bit too.

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