All Utley kneeds to know

Chase Utley, by fielding ground balls the first day in Clearwater, is way ahead of last year's pace when he was shelved for all of spring training and the first 46 games of the season.
Chase Utley, by fielding ground balls the first day in Clearwater, is way ahead of last year's pace when he was shelved for all of spring training and the first 46 games of the season. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 24, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Of the 14 second basemen who logged at least 400 plate appearances in the National League last season, Chase Utley finished fourth with a .344 on-base percentage, fourth with a .425 slugging percentage, and tied for third with 14 stolen bases (in 14 attempts). Get into the more esoteric stats like wins above replacement and runs created and Utley is valued even higher.

All this in what statistically was the worst season of his career, a season that was delayed 2 months as he attempted to alleviate the painful tendinitis and bone bruising in his knee.

Spring is a time for optimism, so there is your foundation. Last year at this time, Utley's entire focus was trained on getting back on the field, an objective that was in doubt for most of spring training. This year, he is coming off an offseason workout routine that he adjusted with the knee condition in mind. Remember that long warning-track fly ball late in Game 5 against the Cardinals? Utley admitted that, in previous seasons, the same swing might have resulted in a game-tying home run.

"I think there's no doubt that the things I was doing didn't allow me to strenghthen my legs," Utley said. "I don't think that . . . it had any benefit from not having stronger legs, but this offseason I was able to strengthen them, maybe not quite as much as in the past, but they're definitely stronger than they were going into last year. My goal now is to maintain that, ideally it would be nice to make them stronger, but at the same time I have to keep them loose and take it easy."

Utley finished with 11 home runs, the fewest of his career. In a 650 plate-appearance season, that would still leave him with under 16 home runs. Still, Utley isn't convinced that he must reinvent the way he approaches his at-bats. He still thinks he can be the player who hits .300 and 20 to 25 home runs in a season.

"I haven't come to the conclusion that I need to change things," said Utley, who hit .298 with a .388 on-base percentage and .523 slugging percentage while averaging 27 homers and 15 steals from 2005 through 2010. "I think what I'm doing now is putting me on track to contribute like I have in the past.

"I think I can overcome this without a doubt. I have pride in how I play and the way I play and that's not going to change."

The knee condition isn't going away. Utley said he has talked to plenty of players who have dealt with it. In addition to tendinitis and bone bruising, doctors diagnosed him with a condition known as chondromalacia, which causes chronic knee pain. But with the help of various doctors and trainers, Utley developed a stretching program that helped alleviate the pain to a point where he could still perform at a high level, even if that level wasn't at its usual place in the stratosphere. Can he definitively rule out ever needing surgery? No.

"I'm not totally convinced, but I'm not willing to take that chance at this point," he said. "I think we have something good going. I don't see any reason to change at this point."

During the offseason, the Phillies acquired veteran infielder Ty Wigginton, who has played mostly third base and first base recently but who could fill in at second and give Utley a break against a tough lefty. Manager Charlie Manuel said he plans to get Utley rest whenever possible.

Last year, Utley missed the Phillies' first 46 games, then played in 103 of their final 116.

"He'll definitely get some time off," the manager said. "He'll definitely get enough. We will monitor him. I think for Utley every now and then, to keep him strong all year, I think we can definitely find time to really keep him there. If you follow what I'm saying. How much? He won't play no 150 games. He'll play less than that maybe, unless he goes out and starts hitting real well. He might kill you if you take him out of the lineup. He'll be OK. Actually, where he's at right now, we're kind of watching him. People might look at that different than I do. I know Utley knows how to play and I communicate real good with him. He's definitely one of those guys that knows himself and I think he realizes that sometimes if he needs a blow, he needs a blow. He'll be checked all the time, of course, and we'll see if he has any problems."

Heading into this season as a 33-year-old, Utley and Manuel are convinced he still can be an elite hitter. Even if he can't, he proved last season that he can still do plenty of things to help the Phillies win.


Read David Murphy's blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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