WASHINGTON - In retrospect, Ryan Howard should have stayed home for the weekend.

The guy Phillies manager Charlie Manuel calls the Big Piece came to the nation's capital Friday a weary slugger, got his first night off of the season Saturday, then left Nationals Park on Sunday on crutches. His left ankle was swollen and sore enough to make him forget about the pain in his right elbow that was the consequence of John Lannan's wayward fastball.

It could have been worse.

In a season in which 14 Phillies have gone on the disabled list, including several the team can barely live without, Manuel had to be thinking the worst as he ambled out to assist Howard, who went down while scrambling back to second base after a first-inning single by Ben Francisco.

"Actually, I thought he wrenched his knee," Manuel said after the Phillies manufactured a 6-4 win over the Nats in 11 innings.

When a video replay showed Howard's ankle bent at an ugly angle, the season flashed before the Phillies' eyes. X-rays on both the ankle and elbow showed no breaks.

In Manuel's worst scenario, Howard might miss a couple of games in a three-game series that begins Tuesday against the Marlins in Florida.

"If anything, he'll miss a day, or he might miss Tuesday or Wednesday, but he could very well be in the lineup Tuesday," Manuel said.

Manuel's assessment seemed overly optimistic, considering how badly the ankle was swollen, an ankle that has to bear about 250 pounds.

"I'm hoping not," Howard said when asked if a stint on the DL was possible. "I guess once the swelling goes down, we'll see what happens. It's kind of a bad sprain. I just rolled it pretty bad. Nothing broke, so that's good. Hopefully, maybe it'll just be a couple days, get the swelling down and it'll be all right."

The Phillies are contending despite problems with the bullpen and stints on the DL by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz, among others. Utley, recovering from surgery on his right thumb, has been out since June 29 and may not return before Labor Day. Victorino (abdominal strain) went on the 15-day DL Wednesday. Raul Ibanez, the team's hottest hitter of late, was scratched before Sunday's game after banging up his left wrist trying to make a diving catch Saturday night.

If Howard's turns out to be a long-term absence, catching Atlanta in the NL East will become more of an uphill climb.

After Howard was helped off the field by Manuel and assistant athletic trainer Mark Andersen, he was replaced at first by Cody Ransom, then by Ross Gload. Gload started two games when Howard was used as a designated hitter, and first base is his natural position. Ransom made his initial start at first Saturday to give Howard a rest.

Howard had gone hitless in his previous 14 at-bats with eight strikeouts. He had played every game, including the All-Star Game, and admitted he was a bit worn down.

Greg Dobbs has played five innings at first base. The point is, the drop-off from Howard to any of his replacements is obviously dramatic.

Howard has been one of the league's more durable players. His only stay on the DL came in 2007 because of a strained left quadriceps. During all of '08 and '09, he missed two games. He said Sunday he'd never had a sprained ankle.

"I don't recommend it for everybody," he said.

Actually, the weekend wasn't an entire waste for Howard.

"It's funny," he said. "I got to first base, and I'm thinking, man, my elbow hurts. Next play at second it's, oh, now my ankle hurts. My elbow doesn't hurt anymore."

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.