NEW YORK - Chase Utley and Ryan Howard remain the heart of the Phillies' batting order and they were the foundation for this franchise's run of success that started in 2007 and appears likely to end in 2012.

But as the season winds toward its conclusion, it's obvious they are players in transition.

After the Phillies took early batting practice Monday afternoon, Utley remained on the field and worked extensively at third base with coach Sam Perlozzo.

Howard, meanwhile, fielded questions about a season that started with him on the disabled list after undergoing surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon and is ending with the first baseman in a terrible slump.

Utley initially worked on making throws from deep third base, with coach Jesus Tiamo serving as first baseman. After that exercise, he fielded fungo grounders off the bat of Ryne Sandberg, the Lehigh Valley manager who is working with the coaching staff in September.

Finally, Utley put the two exercises together, fielding fungos and throwing to Tiamo at first base.

He drew the attention of Mets first baseman Ike Davis, who was obviously surprised to see Utley working at third base.

"No way - three bagger?" Davis yelled at Utley.

The five-time all-star second baseman shrugged, but later talked about his effort to become a third baseman, a position he last played in the minor leagues in 2002.

"It's still a work in progress," he said. "I'm still working on it, still putting the time into it and so far I feel like I've progressed a little bit, but I feel like there is still room for improvement. I've been out there four times, and every time I've felt like I've done something different and it's an improvement, but ground balls off a fungo are different than ground balls in a big-league game."

Utley said he does not care if he plays third base before the end of this season.

"No," he said. "What's important is winning tonight."

Manager Charlie Manuel said he feels the same way. He will not commit to playing Utley at third as long as the Phillies have a chance to claim the second wild card.

"I think that right now we're going to stay the course that we have a chance and we can still win," Manuel said. "We've come from more than four back."

But if the Phillies do slip out of the race, Manuel said, he will definitely consider playing Utley at third base, but added that he'd be comfortable even if he had to wait until spring training to see him playing there.

In Manuel's view, a successful move to third by Utley would improve the Phillies in two ways. The manager feels as if Freddy Galvis is a difference maker at second base with his glove, and the team could focus its free-agent pursuit on a power-hitting outfielder.

Howard will be back as the Phillies' first baseman in 2013, and he's hoping to return with a renewed strength in his left leg and a repaired swing. After hitting .241 with 10 home runs and a respectable .783 OPS through August, Howard batted .193 without a home run in his first 15 games of September and had a .540 OPS.

Manuel said he thinks Howard's surgically repaired leg has had an impact, and the first baseman did not disagree.

"When I watch him hit, I don't think he realizes that his back leg is bothering him," Manuel said. "He has trouble pushing off it. He doesn't use his legs right now hitting the ball."

While Howard has put up his typical RBI numbers - he had 46 in 61 games before Monday - he knows he has not been at his best.

"I didn't really have a lot of expectations for myself," Howard said. "I just wanted to try to come in and help any way I could. I knew I wasn't going to be 100 percent . . . so I just wanted to do what I could by driving in runs. My average and all that kind of stuff is what it is. I've only had 200 at-bats. Not having spring training, you don't realize how important that is until you don't have it."

Howard is glad he came back even at less than 100 percent and he is proud that the Phillies have at least fought their way into contention for the second wild card.

"You look up and see we are four games out of the second wild card and I don't think anybody expected us to be in that position," Howard said.