THE CLUBHOUSE was way too morose to be mourning just a loss.

The bullpen had blown a game in the eighth inning, but still, the Phillies had won eight of 13 games and three of four series since the All-Star break.


Everyone in the clubhouse knew: Chase Utley, the team's best player to date, was having X-rays performed on the back of his right hand. He had been hit there with a fastball in the fifth inning yesterday by Nationals lefthander John Lannan, in his major league debut.

They pretty much knew Utley was gone, like Flash Gordon, Brett Myers, Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber and Ryan Howard before him.

They were right.

Utley, generally considered the best second baseman in the game and a National League MVP candidate, indicated that he will miss at least 3 weeks with a fractured right ring finger.

He will land on the 15-day disabled list today. He will visit hand specialist Dr. Randall W. Culp at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital today to see if surgery is needed.

Worst-case scenario?

"I dunno," Utley said after the Phils' 7-6 loss. "The hand will fall off?"

Apparently not.

"The doctors are pretty optimistic . . . I don't think it's that bad of a break," Utley said. "I definitely expect to come back this year."

Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said team physician Dr. Michael Ciccotti, who performed the initial postgame examination, said that on a scale of 0-to-10 the break was, "Probably a two-three type of fracture."

Similar injuries routinely are diagnosed with 4-to-6-week recovery times.

Even if surgery is required, Utley said, he could return this season. The Phillies will wait until today's exam to determine if they want to seek a replacement before the non-waiver trading deadline Tuesday, Amaro said.

For the moment, utility infielder Abraham Nunez is expected to fill in for Utley.

Utley's shoes are huge.

A first-round pick in 2000 and an All-Star the last two seasons, Utley, 28, signed a 7-year, $85 million contract extension in January. He is earning the money.

He is hitting .336, best on the team and, at the end of yesterday's game, tied for second in the league. He has 82 RBI, second on the team and, at the end of yesterday's game, second in the league. He has 41 doubles, most in the majors.

He also leads the league in getting hit by pitches (17 times), a sacrificial philosophy that was bound to catch up with him.

"I wish I would've gotten out of the way of this one," Utley said.

More than usual, he tried. Lannan's 0-2 fastball rode up and in on him.

Lannan then hit slugger Ryan Howard with the next pitch and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.

Utley had two hits off Lannan. Howard had homered off him in his previous at-bat. Still . . .

"I don't think he was trying to hit me. It kinda got away from him," Utley said. "He's a young guy. He hit two guys in a row. I don't think he was throwing at us."

Neither did Nationals manager Manny Acta, who also was ejected.

Utley insisted on remaining in the game. He and the Phillies believe no further damage was done. Lannan's fastball already had done enough damage to the Phillies' playoff hopes.

Utley consistently has carried the Phillies this season, hitting at least .296 with at least 15 RBI and at least nine doubles each month. Nunez is hitting .256 with no homers and 13 RBI in 180 at-bats.

"What the hell? What do you want me to say?" said manager Charlie Manuel, gut-punched and reeling. "Utley, to me, he's huge. He's a big part of our offense. He's a big part of our defense."

Hitting third, Utley has provided protection for Howard. Teams are actually pitching around Utley to face Howard - and Howard has come through huge.

In 28 games from June 2 to July 1, Utley hit .392 with six homers, 23 RBI and 10 other extra-base hits. Howard was walked 18 times, seven intentionally, and hit .283.

In the 19 games since then, Howard has walked 16 times, only twice intentionally, and is hitting .364 with 10 homers and 28 RBI.

Little wonder Howard was tight-lipped as he exited the clubhouse yesterday. Utley, a hard-nosed team leader, will not allow the club to use his absence as an excuse to falter.

"I expect everybody to continue to play hard. We've still got a lot of games to win," Utley said. "This team has a lot of character. We've had a lot of injuries and we're still in the hunt. We've got 2 months to go."

About half of that time will be spent without their best player. *