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The Phillies can't survive without Chase Utley for long

The team had better be praying that it really is a 2-week oblique injury, and not much longer.

The Phillies took great care in assuring the world, and the rest of the team, that Chase Utley's oblique strain suffered Tuesday should be classified as the mildest sort. Merely a flesh wound. Move along, nothing to see here.

They placed him on the 15-day disabled list in hopes that he will return as soon as he is eligible, June 5. They hedged a bit, allowing that Utley might need more time, but they were crossing their fingers, and maybe their toes.

Seven weeks into the season, the Phillies have yet to play a day over .500, a mark they haven't seen in 6 weeks.

They have scored the fourth-fewest runs in the National League, have endured predictable early-season slumps by Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, have lost their staff leader, Roy Halladay, to a shoulder issue, perhaps for the season, and have seen free-agent upgrade Mike Adams fight injury since the season's start, thereby negating any bullpen upgrade from last year's catastrophic 'pen, and have seen All Star catcher Carlos Ruiz return from suspension only to hit the disabled list for a month or so.

Through it all, Utley remained dependable, productive (.272, seven homers, 25 RBI), and – this matters – engaging.

No one ever can question Utley's professionalism as a ballplayer. He is knowledgeable, detailed, fit and dedicated, and he plays with playground abandon, as if the next ground ball or hard slide might be his last.

However, for such an intelligent person and powerful personality to present a surly, dismissive face for years on end – well, that affects the culture in which he lives. It influences young players. Worse, it often gives veteran newcomers an excuse to act evasively, inappropriately. It creates a poisonous atmosphere where conflict and resentment brew. That is unnecessary, and can be downright taxing over 7½ months, including spring training.

Chase Utley is a big deal.

Since his return from knee problems last year Utley has softened a bit. More often, he offers valuable insight; gauges team morale and the state of their play; and allows an invaluable peek into his thinking. He is the smartest player of this Phillies era, one of the smartest of his generation. His upbeat mood through this disappointing start might have been the difference between their 23-24 and something more like 19-28.

A big deal.

So, 2 weeks without Utley is more than 2 weeks without the team's best offensive player. It is 2 weeks without the man whose leadership has blossomed into something palatable, and something real.

Oblique strains have a way of festering into something longer than is convenient. They don't seem to go away without lots of rest – a month, 6 weeks – especially when they happen to high-mileage 34-year-olds. And any time lost means more time needed to return, if only to regain proper conditioning and timing.

The Phillies, desperate for a surge before the All Star break, simply cannot survive without Utley for most of that stretch.

So, they forecast Utley's as a 2-week oblique.

As opposed to the 6-week oblique.

Also known as the Go Ahead and Trade Cliff Lee This Week Oblique.