PHILADELPHIA—The balls came off Ryne Sandberg's bat nice and easy.

Chase Utley moved at half-speed, if that.

Even taking ground balls for the first time since hitting the 15-day DL with an oblique strain, “taking it slow” seems the mantra for the Phillies second baseman’s recovery, for the first time on display at Citizens Bank Park before tonight’s series finale with the Red Sox.

“The main thing is to take it slow, especially with obliques,” Utley said.

Slow enough that 15 days, the team's initial target return date, is probably imfeasible. GM Ruben Amaro said as much yesterday, as did Utley today.

"It probably won't be 15 days," Utley said. "I don't have a timetable for you. As soon as it feels better, I'll put more stress on it and go from there."

This, he said, was the first step. The last will be swinging a bat, what aggravated his right side nine days ago in the first place. Between will be a conservative progression of exercises to nurture the injury and rebuild strength. Running, baseball-specific training, medicine ball work. The usual.

“The biggest test will be rotational stuff, because that’s what initially hurt it in the first place,” Utley said. “So that will probably be the last thing I do.”

A bit of encouragement: Utley did call what the MRI results revealed “the best-case scenario for this type of injury.” Not that that changes the approach.

“It’s still going to be a slow process getting back. Soon as I’m ready, I’ll be out there.”

Rest for Ryan Howard

PHILADELPHIA—In spring training, Iron Man Howard didn’t get days off.

That was exhibition season then. The Phillies first baseman’s knee has some arthritis now.

So between that, and the likely procession of right-handed pitchers in the hopper for the Phillies for the foreseeable future, Ryan Howard got a day off for tonight’s Game 4 against the Red Sox.

“We’ve got a chance to see a lot of right-handed pitchers in a row,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “Figure I’d give him a day, rest him today, get him off his knee and put him in there tomorrow.”

Delmon Young – not Domonic Brown – will bat cleanup. Kevin Frandsen assumes first base.

Manuel said Howard didn’t ask him for a day – nor did he ask for extra batting practice the last two, an apparent request of Steve Henderson and Wally Joyner.

“No, I think that our hitting coaches just asked him to come out and hit,” Manuel.

It worked. Howard left the yard for the first time since May 7 last night.

Fingers crossed that Manuel’s move proves to be so effective.