Trailing by two runs in the ninth inning of an entirely forgettable Sunday game against the Texas Rangers, Ryan Howard attempted a bunt.

Yes, the Phillies' cleanup hitter and $125 million man decided his best chance of reaching base was to drop one down against the shift. It rolled foul. Two pitches later, Howard struck out.

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"We're going to bottom out one of these days," Charlie Manuel said after a 2-0 loss. "Hopefully, it was today."

The manager can say that, because Monday brings optimism: Manuel will fill out a lineup card that includes Chase Utley, playing second, batting third.

Nine straight games of three or fewer runs has created frustration - neither Howard nor Jimmy Rollins stuck around to field questions about a sluggish offense. Pitching efforts, such as Roy Oswalt's seven innings of one-run ball, are wasted regularly. Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced Manuel to be inventive - he has used 30 different batting orders in 46 games.

And, well, the Phillies were 28-18 without, arguably, their best player.

"It should add a lot to the lineup," Oswalt said of Utley's addition.

That could be understating it slightly. In the last two days, Manuel has used Wilson Valdez (owner of a .551 OPS in 114 plate appearances) as his No. 2 hitter. When Manuel inserts Utley third, he will likely shift Placido Polanco to the second spot, where he succeeded during the first month of the season.

"That has to help us," Manuel said.

Of course, the Phillies do not know what version of Utley they possess. Utley arrived at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday morning after 16 days in Florida which served as an accelerated spring training for the second baseman, who has not played a major-league game since last October. The patellar tendinitis, bone inflammation and chondromalacia in Utley's right knee made simple baseball activities into events and raised numerous questions about the star's future.

So before Sunday's game, Utley sat down with Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to further discuss a management plan for his right knee. Utley has played through pain before without reporting it to team officials. Manuel does not anticipate that problem again. (Utley did not make himself available for comment.)

"He'll be honest with me," Manuel said. "There will be times when he gets days off. Chase will be honest with me. He'll be totally honest with me."

Why?

"Because I know him," Manuel said. "His word's good."

No, but really, can you trust him?

"I think this is different," Manuel said. "We want to make sure we have him the rest of the season. And we want to make sure we have him for a few years. Knowing him like I do, and how I can talk to him, he'll be totally honest with me."

Utley played nine games at single-A Clearwater, and batted 9 for 32 (.281). He stole a base, beat out an infield single, turned double plays and did all of this without significant pain the following day.

The timing for his return could not be scripted any better.

Another lackluster pitcher, this time Texas' Matt Harrison, breezed through the Phillies' lineup. He came within two outs of his first complete game in more than two years. Just twice did the Phillies advance a runner to third, and both times Harrison escaped with a key pitch.

Rollins batted twice with runners in scoring position and flied out in each chance. The Phillies had a hit with a runner in scoring position when Valdez singled in the third, but backup catcher Dane Sardinha was too slow to score from second and was held at third.

Manuel took a swipe at his team's baserunning when asked about Utley. He suggested not only are his fringe players trying to do too much, but so are his veterans.

"We have to keep going," Manuel said.

Beginning Monday, they'll do it with Utley around.

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.