IN THE LAST few years, almost no one left early. The Phillies had everyone very well trained that way. They were built to score runs, especially at home, and no deficit was too deep. They came back too many times, occasionally with a trickle but often with the damnedest flood. You stayed because, with this team, you never knew.

It isn't like that anymore - and the thousands who fled Citizens Bank Park after the bottom of the eighth inning yesterday were quite prescient, as it turned out. They missed nothing, other than this Halley's Comet moment: Ryan Howard fouling off a bunt attempt to lead off the ninth inning.

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For the Phillies these days, a two-run deficit is like Everest and everyone knows it. Into that reality, Chase Utley returns.

"Our pitching has been outstanding," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We're going to hit. We're going to hit better. We're going to bottom out one of these days. Hopefully, it was today."

With Utley watching from the dugout, the Phillies' lineup sleepwalked through another day at the yard: Rangers 2, Phillies 0. He will be activated today and immediately placed back into the middle of this moribund lineup. Manuel said that Utley likely would be hitting in his familiar spot, third in the order.

Between his two extended-spring-training games and nine rehab games with Class A Clearwater, Utley had 46 at-bats. In a typical spring, a regular player would get about 70 at-bats. But nothing here has been typical - not Utley's bout with right-knee tendinitis and chondromalacia, and not the Phillies' plummeting off the offensive face of the earth - and so he is back.

It is now nine straight games in which the Phillies have not scored more than three runs. Yesterday was what has become fairly routine: no runs and five hits. In the third inning, catcher Dane Sardinha could not score from second on a single to right by Wilson Valdez, with third-base coach Juan Samuel rightly stopping him at third. In the fifth, Sardinha was again stranded at third when Valdez grounded out. And that was that. Seven innings of one-run pitching by starter Roy Oswalt were wasted.

Everybody knew that the Phillies' lineup would be challenged this season without Jayson Werth, and injuries to Utley and Shane Victorino (hamstring) have understandably compounded the problems, but no one saw this coming. Everybody is quite obviously pressing. The situation is bad enough that Utley really is being viewed as someone carrying not only a bat as part of his equipment, but also a pair of defibrillator paddles.

"I think it'll help, yeah," Manuel said. "He's one of our top hitters. Once we get Chase and Victorino back in there, our lineup is just going to be much better . . . We'll get better. It's got to help us. Also, from a presence standpoint, that will help us. Also being able to go from first-to-third and second-to-home, that's going to help us."

Later, the Phillies' clubhouse was quiet and largely deserted. But Raul Ibanez was there to call Utley's return "a big boost."

"I think we've hit some balls pretty good of late," said Ibanez, who had a fourth-inning single yesterday. "I think there's some signs of life. It's a nice boost to add Chase Utley to your lineup."

How Manuel uses Utley will be closely scrutinized by everyone. In the past, the manager acknowledged that Utley has played through physical issues while insisting to everyone that he is fine. Manuel says that will not happen this time.

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

Why?

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

With that, Utley returns. And while they all talk about his "presence," we are about to find out if that is more than just a word.