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Posted at 03:14 PM ET, 05/21/2011

With Utley’s return approaching, first-place Phillies like their position

From a distance, it might appear as if there is trouble in Philadelphia. The Phillies stumbled home from a recent road trip lugging a four-game losing streak to start a nine-game homestand, a skid during which their offense scored a total of seven runs. On three successive days, they lost games started by Roy Halladay, Lee and Roy Oswalt, respectively. After fattening up against a weak April schedule, the Phillies have played 14 straight games against teams with winning records and have gone 6-8.

Go ahead and look at it that way, if it makes you feel better. But the truth is, given the circumstances in which the Phillies found themselves entering the season, the first quarter of the 2011 schedule could not have gone much better for them. Through 41 games, they were 25-16 – only a game off last year’s pace, and better than their 2008 or 2009 paces, seasons in which they wound up playing in the World Series – and maintain a half-game lead over the Florida Marlins in the Nationals League East.

And now, look what’s coming. At some point during this homestand, perhaps by the end of this week, the Phillies could witness the return of second baseman Chase Utley, their most indispensable player, from a knee injury that has thus far kept him out the entire season.

Essentially, the Phillies have managed to tread water in Utley’s absence – playing up to their lofty expectations while awaiting his return. And the impact of Utley’s return can’t be overstated. So far this year, the Phillies have been getting a .570 OPS (worst in the NL) out of the second base position (where Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr have received most of the playing time), and a .635 OPS (26th in the majors) out of the No. 3 spot in the lineup, where Utley typically hits.

Even a slightly diminished version of Utley (the Phillies have hinted that his knee condition may require maintenance for the rest of his career) will be a huge upgrade – and his return will deepen the Phillies’ lineup, allowing Manager Charlie Manuel to move someone, most likely Placido Polanco, down to the No. 5 spot, where the Phillies have struggled to find a viable option as protection for cleanup man Ryan Howard.

In the meantime, the Phillies’ pitching — notwithstanding a short absence from Oswalt and some bouts of inconsistency from Lee — has performed pretty much as expected, ranking second in the NL in ERA (3.11) and first in complete games (six).

Yes, the Phillies will still be tested (all nine games on this homestand, beginning with two against Colorado, are against teams currently in first place in their divisions), and no, the Marlins and/or Braves will not let them walk away with the division title without a fight. But having nearly survived — and more — this trying stretch of season without their best player, there probably isn’t a team in the National League that wouldn’t trade places with them.

By  |  03:14 PM ET, 05/21/2011

 
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