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Healthy Utley, Howard, Rollins make Phils whole

Trio key to Philadelphia's chances of returning to postseason play in 2014

ARLINGTON -- To have them back out there together means plenty. They make the Phillies seem whole.

One game is one game is one game. Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley would want that pointed out. They've been through too much together to see Opening Day as anything more. Still, as Opening Days go, it was a pretty good one.

To see them all back in the lineup together, to see them producing and the Phillies winning, is a nice way to begin a season of uncertainty.

Someday, they'll be remembered as the core group of players that changed the way people think about the Phils. Their legacy will always be five straight division championships (2007-11) and two trips to the World Series, including the 2008 championship season.

Along the way, they established themselves as tough, smart, competitive players. They defined winning and effort in just about every way it can be defined. They're older players now -- Howard is 34, Utley and Rollins 35 -- and have had some tough times and some injuries and all the things older players sometimes battle.

Still, on Monday afternoon, they were right there in the middle of things as the Phillies collected 17 hits in a 14-10 victory over the Rangers. Rollins got things rolling with a second-inning grand slam, but that was just a start. The Phils got production from up and down the lineup, and Rollins, Howard and Utley combined for six hits and five RBIs.

Just like old days, right?

"The guys have a lot of pride, and they've worked hard all spring," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "They did have a bad taste in their mouth last year, with the way that went. At this stage of their careers, I know they want to get back to the other level of baseball, and that's contending for postseason action. That's what they talk about."

It was a particularly nice day for Howard, who has played just 151 games the last two seasons after tearing an Achilles tendon in the 2011 playoffs. He's moving well and seems to be swinging comfortably.

"I feel good," Howard said. "I got off to a pretty good start early [with a walk and two singles in his first three plate appearances] and kind of fell off toward the end [strikeouts in his final three at-bats]. Just try to continue to build off that. Go back to the lab tomorrow and get everything right."

Howard laughed about criticism of the Phils during a Spring Training when they didn't hit much and dealt with suggestions that their time had passed. He said this season isn't about proving anyone wrong. It's simply about keeping the main guys healthy and taking another run at October.

"Just to do it, that's what we're here for," Howard said.

Rollins certainly would understand. His 14th Opening Day start came after a spring in which his relationship with Sandberg was debated and discussed. And then Rollins lifted his 200th career home run over the right-field wall with the bases loaded in the second inning.

"I remember growing up, going to Oakland A's games and looking at the size of Mark McGwire and thinking, 'I'm not going to hit too many home runs,'" Rollins said. "I guess I proved myself wrong."

Rollins is typically blunt, saying all that matters is the respect of his teammates.

"As long as the guys in this clubhouse respect me -- and I respect them -- that's what it's all about," he said. "We're going to prove it on the field, or we won't prove it on the field."

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is going to keep the band together as long as he thinks they have another chance for some October magic. His two biggest offseason acquisitions -- outfielder Marlon Byrd (36) and pitcher A.J. Burnett (37) -- aren't younger guys either.

But if the Phils can stay reasonably healthy, if starters Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Burnett do their usual thing, we could have some fun September baseball in Philadelphia.

Back to Utley, Howard and Rollins.

"We've been saying it all along," Amaro said. "If those guys are healthy and they're on the field, we've had success with them. They'll produce if they're playing. We're pleased we were able to get 'em through Spring Training in a healthy way, and hopefully they can keep going. I think they know how to win. They understand it. Those guys have some motivation, because they haven't been able to be on the field."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Philadelphia Phillies, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley