SHORTLY AFTER they arrived at Citizens Bank Park for their National League Division Series rematch with the Phillies, the Reds announced they had demoted struggling starter Edinson Volquez. This was significant because Volquez was the pitcher who started Game 1 for Cincinnati last October. It was also significant because a few hours later, Game 2 starter Bronson Arroyo walked off the mound after allowing nine runs in 2 innings en route to a 10-3 shellacking.
The evening reinforced a couple of key observations about the long-term prospects for this Phillies roster. First and foremost, that it still should be the envy of the majority of major league teams, given the scarcity of elite starting pitchers when compared to the other positions on the field. Second, that the absence of Chase Utley has not been the only thing holding them back from reaching their full potential.
In case you spent your weekend in a darkened room sorting through various existential crises, Utley made his long-anticipated return from the disabled list last night. In a neat and tidy world, he would have spearheaded the onslaught the Phillies unleashed against Arroyo in the first three innings. The game stories would have written themselves, and the headline writers would have pulled muscles sprinting to their keyboards. But Utley was not the story. Instead, it was Jimmy Rollins channeling 2007, leading off the game with a single and later going long. It was Raul Ibanez connecting on his fifth home run of the season, a solo shot in the fourth inning. It was Ryan Howard going 2-for-4 with a double.
"I don't know if it was his presence, but somebody did something right," manager Charlie Manuel said. "So we'll give him credit."
By the time it was over, Utley was the only member of the lineup who did not notch a hit, and one of only two who did not score a run. Howard, Rollins, Placido Polanco, Ibanez and Carlos Ruiz all had multiple hits. Utley went 0-for-5, grounded a throw to first on an infield single, and for the most part was a nonfactor. Prior to his first at-bat, he received a standing ovation so long it almost needed an intermission. When Manuel pulled him out of the game before the top of the ninth, all of his body parts were still attached, including the balky right knee that had sidelined him for the first 46 games of the season.
There is a strong chance the Phillies will let Utley keep his job. Despite any lingering rust, and a schedule that likely will offer him a couple of days off each week, the perennial All-Star immediately brings patience and power to a lineup that did not get much of either from fill-ins Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr.
But it will take more than Utley to shake the offensive struggles that have plagued the Phillies, who entered last night ranked 12th in the National League in scoring. The 10 runs they scored against the Reds were their most since a 10-3 win over the Mets on April 29. Seven of them came in the third, when the Phillies rapped out six hits, the last of them coming on Rollins' third home run of the season, a three-run shot that chased Arroyo from the game.
The outburst allowed lefthander Cole Hamels to shrug off the three-run homer he allowed to Jay Bruce in the fourth inning. Rarely has that been the case. In six of Hamels' first nine starts, the offense failed to score more than three runs. But the Phillies are now 8-2 in starts by the youngest member of the vaunted foursome at the top of their rotation.
They are still without centerfielder Shane Victorino. They are still starting two outfielders, John Mayberry Jr. and Domonic Brown, who have spent the bulk of their careers in the minors. But the Phillies are hopeful that performances like last night's can become the norm.
"Clearly they're not producing the way we want them to," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said before the game. "But I do feel comfortable with what they've done and how they've produced in the past. If we don't [get better] then we'll try to make a change, but right now I feel comfortable with it and we'll go from there."
Amaro also acknowledged that the Phillies could need to upgrade before the July 31 trading deadline. With a payroll that is already projected to finish around $175 million, they are creeping close to the $178 million luxury tax limit, after which every dollar spent is subject to a 22.5 percent penalty.
For now, though, they will wait to see if 10-3 wins become contagious.
Righthander Jose Contreras is expected to make his final rehab start today after Triple A Lehigh Valley was rained out last night. Assuming Contreras does not suffer a setback, the Phillies plan to activate him after the appearance . . . Last night's announced attendance was 45,841, the largest regular-season crowd in Citizens Bank Park history and the 149th consecutive sellout.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at