Utley, who had surgery on his right thumb July 1, had a triple in three at-bats while playing five innings in the field for Class-A Clearwater on Saturday night. It was his first rehab game since the injury and he could play with the farm club again on Sunday.
"I'm optimistic," Manuel said before the Phillies played the New York Mets. "The doctor said what, eight weeks? He's going to be seven-something, so that's pretty close."
Utley tore a ligament in his right thumb on June 28 in Cincinnati, and the team expected the second baseman to be out until the end of August, putting his recovery ahead of schedule.
Howard, meanwhile, has been dealing with a sprained left ankle that affects him when he plants his foot at the plate. He took light batting practice on Friday night and early batting practice on Saturday, and told Manuel that he's feeling better.
Manuel isn't sure whether Howard will need to play in any rehab games, but he thinks that the big slugger could join Utley back in the lineup next week if everything goes well. The Phillies begin a 10-game homestand with three games against San Francisco on Tuesday.
"He says he feels good," Manuel said of Howard.
Their return would certainly be a boon for the banged-up Phillies, who have still managed to win 16 of 21 games entering Saturday night's matchup with New York. Philadelphia began the day three games back of division-leading Atlanta in the NL East.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz was back in the starting lineup after missing a game with a sore quadriceps. He believes he hurt it after his game-winning hit Thursday night set off a wild scramble - Ruiz felt a twinge while trying to run away from his celebrating teammates.
"He came in today, he squatted for me, he's good to go," Manuel said. "I could have played him last night, but it was a quad, and I didn't want it to be something bad."
Outfielder Shane Victorino also was in the starting lineup again. He was activated from the disabled list Thursday after being sidelined with a lower abdominal strain.
The Phillies have had 15 players spend time on the disabled list, including pitchers Jamie Moyer and Brad Lidge, third baseman Placido Polanco and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. That's the most in a single season for the Phillies since 2007, when they had 18 players on the injured list.