Howard believes teammates will step up
First baseman, Utley to miss an indefinite amount of time
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies have said everything a team usually says at a time like this.
They have survived injuries before. They have the talent to overcome them again.
Chase Utley left the team Monday to meet with an unnamed specialist at an undisclosed location because of a chronic condition in both knees that has left him unable to play or practice. Ryan Howard still has a protective boot on his left foot while it heals following a surgical procedure to remove sutures that caused an infection near his left Achilles. Howard said Tuesday morning at Bright House Field he hopes to lose the boot sometime within the next two weeks.
Both Utley and Howard will open the 2012 season on the disabled list. Nobody knows when they will be back.
Their indefinite absences leave a major void on the right side of the infield and in the middle of the lineup.
"People are going to say it's more daunting," Howard said. "All you can do is ask guys to go out there and play the game. You don't want Hunter [Pence] trying to take my place and Chase's place. You want Hunter to be Hunter. If [John] Mayberry is going to fill in at first base, you want John Mayberry to be John Mayberry. As a team, you've got to come together. This is the situation right now. We don't have Chase. We don't have Ryan. That's no excuse."
The Phillies have missed Utley for extended stretches before. They have missed Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and others, too. But Utley and Howard are the two most important hitters in the lineup, hitting third and fourth, respectively. Handling both of their absences at the same time for weeks -- very possibly months -- will test the Phillies like they have never been tested before.
The Phillies have played 1,054 regular-season games since Howard became their everyday first baseman on July 2, 2005, but they have played just 21 games without Howard and Utley on the field at the same time. It first happened May 24, 2007, when Charlie Manuel had Chris Coste at first base and Abraham Nunez at second base. It happened two other times on the final day of the regular season, when the Phillies had clinched National League East championships: '08 with Coste at first and Tadahito Iguchi at second and '09 with Andy Tracy at first and Miguel Cairo at second.
The Phillies played their longest stretch without Howard and Utley in 2010, when they went 12 consecutive games without them from Aug. 3-15. Howard was on the disabled list for 19 days with a sprained left ankle, while Utley was on the DL for nearly two months with an injured left thumb. The Phillies went 9-3 in that stretch with Cody Ransom, Ross Gload, Mike Sweeney and Greg Dobbs handling duties at first base and Wilson Valdez playing second base.
But this stretch could be much, much longer.
"It feels like Spring Training out there when you look around and nobody's there," Rollins said. "Especially [Monday], I was looking around like, 'This is what I have to get used to.' Just different people. It's a little uncomfortable, because you've built relationships and trust with all of your infielders and you know people personally. And now it's like, 'Man, I have to get used to the way this guy plays. I have to teach this guy about the hitters and where to play.' All those things that you take for granted when you have a partner like Chase -- a guy that you know their style and kind of bounce off each other without having to communicate all the time. So that's going to be new. But I'm up for it."
It is fair to wonder if Utley's best days are behind him, considering his knees are not improving. But Howard believes Utley will be back.
"I think we'll definitely play with Chase again," Howard said. "You just have to make sure you're right. And knowing him, he's going to do everything in his power to get on the field. ... But it's a tough situation, because if his knees aren't better, you don't want to force and make it worse."
The Phillies said there is no timetable for Howard to lose the boot, which means there is no timetable for his return. They had hoped in a best-case scenario he could return before June, but that seems unlikely at this point. Utley missed the first 46 games last season because of his knee problems, so one could speculate Utley and Howard could miss the first third of the season.
But Howard isn't going to rush himself back.
"I'm going to continue down the path I'm on," he said. "As a competitor, you want to be on the field, but you've got to take care of your body. You've got to make sure you're good. When I'm 110 percent sure this thing is healed and I don't have to think about making a cut, I'll be back."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.