Utley's 'darn-near miracle' year

Chase Utley used a stool during spring workouts to take the load off his tender knee. He now has a stretching regimen he uses before every game that has kept him in the lineup.
Chase Utley used a stool during spring workouts to take the load off his tender knee. He now has a stretching regimen he uses before every game that has kept him in the lineup. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)

Hobbled by knee tendinitis in the spring, he returned with a new regimen - and the old fire.

Posted: August 26, 2011

More than three months have passed since the Phillies cranked up Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" as Chase Utley's escort music to home plate for the first time this season. The sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park that May 23 night drowned out Jimmy Page's signature guitar riff with a rousing standing ovation for the gritty second baseman whose season appeared to be in serious jeopardy when the Phillies left spring training.

For Utley, the initial trip to home plate was the beginning of an unknown journey. After just a few days of workouts in Clearwater, Fla., during spring training, a pain he felt in his right knee during the offseason not only persisted, it also intensified. It was so excruciating that he felt the need to inform the Phillies' medical staff, a procedure he may have skipped as a younger man.

An MRI revealed that Utley had patellar tendinitis in his right knee.

As spring training progressed and Utley's rehab did not, the idea of playing at least the first half of the season without their all-star second baseman became an unpleasant possibility for the Phillies.

"I was very, very concerned coming out of spring training," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said earlier this week. "When I heard the doctors talk, and I heard the trainers talk, I thought it might be quite a while before Chase played. To tell the truth, I thought it would definitely be the second part of the season."

Ruben Amaro Jr. had similar concerns.

"I think all of us were concerned, but with Chase I think you kind of stay cautiously optimistic that he's going to be fine because it's Chase," the Phillies general manager said. "He's kind of wired differently than others."

Utley, 32 and in his ninth big-league season, earned that reputation by recuperating much faster than anticipated from a broken hand in 2007 and surgery on his thumb last season. But even he freely admits this injury was more daunting.

"The medical staff here - Dr. [Michael] Ciccotti, [head trainer] Scott Sheridan, and all the trainers - we all kind of sat down and tried to figure out what the best plan of attack was, and there was no really definite answer how to get improvement," Utley said. "We kind of picked different people's brains about what they would do, and it seemed like everybody had a little different opinion."

The opinion Utley and the Phillies did not want to hear was surgery.

"Mainly because it was uncertain how it would respond," Utley said. "So we decided not to go that route and rehab it and go a different direction with that."

Mystery rahab man

Ciccotti and Sheridan suggested Utley visit a rehab specialist whose name and location the team has not divulged. Utley still does not want the specialist's name revealed, but he is grateful that the mystery man and the Phillies' medical staff came up with a surgery-free plan to get him back on the field.

Stretching in ways he never had before became Utley's elixir. Not long after he started the program, he started to see results.

"I don't necessarily think I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, but I saw that we had come up with a good program," Utley said. "Some of [the stretches] were Scott's idea, and some of them were the specialist's idea, and we kind of put them together. We decided we'd do everything within our means to stick with it.

"We knew it wasn't going to be an overnight fix, and we were in it for the long haul. Having a plan and kind of sticking to it was comforting. These are definitely stretches that I haven't done in the past, and when I started them they were not the most comfortable thing in the world. But now that I'm going through the routine and it's a daily thing, I feel good about it."

Not only is Utley doing different stretches, he is also doing them more often.

"Obviously, I spend a little bit more time getting ready for the game and getting ready for batting practice," he said. "The whole goal is to try to stay as loose as possible. Since the beginning of the season, I came up with a routine, and it has changed a little bit since then. But there are still things I do every single day.

"I stretch four times a day. I stretch when I get to the field. I stretch with the team, I stretch a half-hour before the game, and I stretch 15 minutes before the game. Before I'd just do a team stretch and then stretch right before the game. That's something that has helped out a lot."

The stretching routine is so effective that Utley said he can also avoid surgery after the season.

"Absolutely," he said. "Going with this program now and maybe adding to it is what I can do in the future. I don't think it's going to get any easier going forward, but right now I know what I have to do to be able to play on a daily basis."

Utley's name still shows up on the medical report every day, and Manuel often rests Utley in the late innings of lopsided games. But for the most part, the second baseman is in the lineup every day. He has had only six game days off since coming off the disabled list.

"I look at our medical report every day," Manuel said. "I go to his name pretty quick, and he's been doing real well. The way he runs tells you he's near 100 percent."

Still, Manuel watches Utley nervously at times from the dugout.

"He does some things in the game that make me kind of cringe," the manager said. "He slides on his knees, or he dives and hits his knees, or he tries to run over the catcher. Those things worry me. The doctors and trainers have told me there was quite a bit of pain involved, but the way he has come back kind of tells you who he is and how dedicated he is to baseball."

Utley is not entirely pain-free, but it's nothing he thinks about when he's on the field, he said.

"There are days when it's a little tender, but it's not enough to keep me out of the lineup so far," he said. "Those days don't happen very often, and I'm able to block it out. I'm playing without even thinking about it. I feel like, for the most part, I'm able to play aggressively, which I like to do."

Beyond statistics

Given how ominous things appeared in spring training, the level Utley has played at this season has been impressive. He will carry a .279 average with 19 doubles, four triples, and nine home runs into Friday night's game against the Florida Marlins.

Those numbers may not compare to what he has done in some past seasons, but Utley remains one of the top second basemen in the National League. His game, of course, has always extended beyond statistics anyway. It's about going from first to third on a single and first to home on a double. It's about take-out slides and turning double plays. It's about always being in the right place on defense and knowing the situation at home plate.

"He's a very special player, and guys like Utley don't come by very often in this game," Manuel said. "Just having him in the lineup and knowing he loves to play, that means a whole lot to me and my team."

A view from the opposing side reveals just how much Utley means to the Phillies.

"He will do what it takes to win, and it's all within the rules," Mets third base coach Chip Hale said. "There are things he does sometimes that you get upset with, and then you go back and look at it and you're like: 'You know what, he's just playing the game hard.' We've had issues where there have been people who thought he went in too hard at second, but that's the way you're supposed to play the game. When we're trying to teach our younger players how to play, I'll use him a lot with video."

Hale said the Utley he saw before the knee injury is the same guy he sees now.

There are no statistics for that kind of thing, and Amaro and the Phillies have been more than happy with Utley's statistics anyway.

Since hitting .195 with two extra-base hits in his first 11 games, Utley has batted .292 with 18 doubles, four triples, and eight home runs.

"Obviously, he didn't get into a great rhythm early in the season," Amaro said. "He's going to have ebbs and flows and peaks and valleys like every other hitter. But I think, production-wise, he's done very well for us. Is it the best year he's ever had? No. Is it a good year? Yes, it's a very good, solid year."

First base coach Sam Perlozzo, who devised a unique way for Utley to field ground balls from a stool during spring training, thinks it's something more than a good, solid year.

"I had serious doubts whether he'd come back," Perlozzo said. "So, to me, for him to do what he has done is a darn-near miracle. I think he's playing a great second base and turning double plays as well as he ever did. His range is good. He's stolen 13 bases, and I don't even think about [the knee injury] anymore."

The perpetually stoic Utley is not that dramatic about his return, but he does have a special appreciation for what has happened this season.

"I was really uncertain about how this year would play out," he said. "I knew that I couldn't play in the state that I was in, and I needed to make some changes. Miracle, I don't know if that's the right word, but I think fortunate is a good term.

"I'm definitely thankful that I'm able to play on a daily basis because that's what I have done in the past, and that's what I enjoy doing. I'd have to say our training staff did whatever it needed to do. They've come in early with me all season, and they were very hands-on, especially in spring training."

And, now, after stretching four times before the game, Utley is still able to stretch a single into a double and play the game of baseball the only way he knows how.

Utley Still Among the Elite

Despite playing with patellar tendinitis in his right knee that appeared as if it was going to threaten his season in spring training, Chase Utley remains among the elite second basemen in the National League.

"I'd say you have to go a long way to beat Ut," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "That's how much respect I have for him."

Here is a look at how Utley's season compares to the league's other regular second basemen through Wednesday's games since Utley returned to the Phillies lineup on May 23. The players are listed in order of games played:

Player, team                    G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG.

 Danny Espinosa, Washington     82 313 34 75 14 1 12 30 .240

Dan Uggla, Atlanta              81 298 50 77 11 0 23 51 .258

Neil Walker, Pittsburgh           78 306 35 86 11 4 4 45 .281

Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati        77 321 43 90 19 1 7 43 .280

Chase Utley, Phillies              77 298 43 83 19 4 9 39 .279

 Skip Schumaker, St. Louis        74 228 23 72 12 0 1 22 .316

Jason Turner, New York          73 237 35 72 17 0 3 28 .304

Omar Infante, Florida           71 273 27 84 10 5 2 20 .308

Darwin Barney, Chicago           70 258 31 72 11 3 1 15 .279

a-Kelly Johnson, Arizona        70 257 40 57 14 5 13 35 .222

Aaron Miles, Los Angeles        68 236 25 68 12 2 3 29 .288

Jonathan Herrera, Colorado        60 120 11 24 1 0 1 5 .200

Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee        58 228 43 59 14 0 12 29 .259

Orlando Hudson, San Diego       57 197 25 55 7 2 4 30 .279

Jose Altuve, Houston             32 126 17 39 7 0 1 8 .310

b-Jeff Keppinger, San Francisco 29 110 8 30 5 0 1 3 .273

a-Traded from Arizona to Toronto on Tuesday.

b-Only includes statistics with San Francisco.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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