Heading into last night, Utley had 11 steals, an average of one every 24.09 plate appearances. That would qualify as his best single-season average and well better than his career mark of 42.89 plate appearances-per-steal. Utley was striking out once every 8.8 at-bats, which would be another career best. Most importantly, he is starting to show the power that not long ago made him the top offensive second baseman in baseball.
In his last 44 games, 44.2 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases (career average: 40 percent; career-high: 46 percent). During that same stretch, he has averaged a home run every 23.9 at-bats, still shy of his 21.4 career average, but much better than the 26.6 rate he posted last season.
"He's been swinging very good," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think his timing is good right now. He's starting to hit lefties good and he's starting to drive the ball, he's starting to drive the ball to all fields."
Like most things about Utley, the exact status of his body is a closely guarded secret. The second baseman avoids the media like a vegan avoids steak. When he does speak publicly, his answers are purposefully devoid of substance. Neither Utley nor the Phillies has ever divulged the specific course of treatment that has helped him make such a remarkable return. At first, the big question was whether he would play at all. Then, it was how much rest he would get. Now, Utley is playing like he did when he was labeled the Phillies' next National League MVP. Yesterday was his first day off in 31 games, his longest stretch of the season, albeit one that was broken up by the All-Star break and a couple of off days. He had started games on 13 straight days before last night's rest, which came against Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner.
"I don't know if he gets treatment every day or not," Manuel said about Utley's knees. "He gets checked every so often, but I don't think he gets treatment every day."
One thing he does know: Utley will be in the lineup tonight against lefty Jonathan Sanchez, who has a tumultuous history with Utley, including an incident during last year's NLCS that resulted in both players barking at each other.
"I think he's been doing really good," Manuel said. "Because he feels real good sometimes that doesn't mean a rest won't help him."
After the impending returns of Ryan Madson and righthander Roy Oswalt, who will start Sunday for the first time since June 23, the Phillies will have a big roster decision to make.
Right now, the decision appears to be between keeping 11 pitchers or optioning Opening Day rightfielder Ben Francisco to Lehigh Valley. John Mayberry Jr. has been the odd man out all season, but he has hit two home runs in the Phillies' last three games, including a solo shot last night and a game-tying, pinch-hit blast on Tuesday against the Rockies. Manuel said he still believes the Phillies need to keep two backup infielders in Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez, given the situations of Utley and banged-up third baseman Placido Polanco.
But Manuel said the team has not reached conclusions about anything yet.
Madson and his wife, Sarah, welcomed their fourth child, a boy, into the world yesterday in California.
Madson was placed on the 3-day paternity leave list, but Manuel said he is expected to return tomorrow. In the meantime, the Phillies have elevated righthander Scott Mathieson from Triple A Lehigh Valley. Manuel said he would handle the closing job on a situational basis until Madson returns. Brad Lidge recorded the save in an 8-6 win over the Rockies on Wednesday.
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