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Will the return of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard change the Phillies' momentum?



You've seen it happen before: a star athlete returns to a team after a long injury, and you expect the team to play even better now that he's back.

However, team chemistry is very delicate, and the team can often lose its momentum upon a player's return. There was talk that the activation of Eric Lindros' for the Flyers' 2000 Eastern Conference Finals against the Devils is what steered the orange and black in the wrong direction (we won't even talk about what happened in Game 7). Some would say that the return of Jameer Nelson in the 2009 NBA Finals  changed the way that the Orlando Magic played prior to getting to the NBA's biggest stage (although they probably wouldn't have beaten the Lakers anyway).

This question will once again resurface later this week, when Phillies' All-Stars Chase Utley  and Ryan Howard make their likely returns from the disbaled list. With a rash of injuries resulting in the Phillies' projected starting eight playing just a handful of games together so far in 2010, role players such as newly acquired Mike Sweeney, Ross Gload, Ben Fransisco, and Wilson Valdez have done more than an admirable job this season in helping keep the Phillies to within scratching distance of the first place Braves (I HATE saying that!). The Phillies are 10-3 so far in the month of August. They haven't homered in their last five games, but are winning by basically playing sound, fundamental baseball combined with (for the most part) strong starting pitching. Moreover, Brad Lidge has converted his last six save opportunities despite not always having the cleanest of ninth innings. Needless to say,things have been going pretty well for the Phightins' despite the loss of their two top guns.

Unlike 2009, the Phillies are not runaway favorites right now to win the National League East. The Braves keep on winning, and unlike the 2007 and 2008 Mets, they show no sign of fading despite the loss of Chipper Jones for the season. Their comeback win against the Dodgers Monday night is kind of expected by now. When healthy, the Phillies have an overall better team than the Braves, but the Braves' bullpen is downright scary. The Phillies' bullpen? Scary in a bad way. MLB Network's Ken Rosenthal (who will never give the Phillies the credit they deserve for their recent success) claims that this could probably be the difference maker as far as winning the division goes. Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels want to hold the World Series Trophy again.And sadly, I may have to agree with him.

The good news for the Phillies on the offensive front is that Howard ALWAYS carries this team in September. It is yet to be determined how his ankle injury will play into his already declining power numbers this year. Fact of the matter is, Howard is second to his rival Albert Pujols for the leaue lead in RBI's despte missing several weeks. So in one form or another, he has been producing. If the Phillies continue to play their recent style of baseball, and if Howard's production stays the same, this bodes very well for the Phillies, and not so much for the National League.

Utley's impact (good or bad) might be more of a concern. Utley is no stranger to recovering from a mid-season injury (having suffered a broken hand in 2007). Utley however, has struggled at times when he was in the lineup in 2010. Who knows? Maybe he will come back and be better? Chase Utley has never let us down before. Let's hope that this time is no different.

Final Thought:

Despite having a lead in percentage points over the Giants in the Wild Card race going into this crucial three game set, the Phillies' best option is to win the division. Competition from the Padres, Reds, and Cardinals is stiff. Some of these teams won't make it out of the 2010 regular season alive. Once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen. However, Atlanta has lost just 15 games at home all season. The last two weeks of this season may be crucial to the Phillies long-term post season chances. Going into Atlanta for the season's final weekend with anything less than a four game lead is playing on shaky ground. Controlling your own destiny is a lot better than running the risk of having to go into Atlanta for a postseason series where they have the home field advantage. At the same time, I don't think anybody wants to play a healthy Phillies team in the playoffs. If the team can continue to play their brand of winning baseball, and Utley and Howard ease back into their roles (as much as they can EASE back into anything), they have a legitimate shot at winning their fourth consecutive NL East crown.

If they do pull this out, it might be the sweetest one of all.

In the meantime, Keep On Phightin.'

Read of the Week: from former Philly.com Phillies beat writer Andy Martino: "Too Nice" New York Mets would do well to pick up some swagger from arrogant,condescending Phillies

This was obviously written before the "Too Nice" K-Rod injured his thumb while assaulting his "father-in law."  If that is not a microcosm for the New York Mets, I don't know what is.

Joe Vallee is a lifelong Phillies fan and former Phillies batboy. Joe has claimed to have seen about 98% of every Phillies game since the early 1980's

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com