A determined Utley deals with the pain

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is mobile this spring. Last year, he fielded ground balls from a step stool.
Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is mobile this spring. Last year, he fielded ground balls from a step stool. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The blue step stool is where it belongs - in a closet at Bright House Field, or filling a more practical use than fielding ground balls. Maybe Chase Utley burned the thing when he left here for good last May.

No, that step stool is not what will save Utley's right knee and his career. The Phillies and their second baseman know a great deal more about the degenerative patellar tendinitis and how it must be managed. They recognize it's never going away. Utley, 33, will either play through the pain or succumb to it.

"It's something I'm always going to have to monitor - forever, to be honest," Utley said.

The gravity of the situation is not lost on Utley, the many doctors he has solicited, and the Phillies' front office. Gone is the step stool, which Utley used to eliminate the strain of squatting for every spring grounder hit his way in practice. In its place are a program that effectively eliminated heavy weight lifting this winter and a conditioning plan to strengthen everything around his knee to sustain the brunt of playing baseball every day.

There are plenty of doubts about its viability. Utley posted career lows in on-base and slugging percentage in 2011. (Even then, he was eighth among all second basemen with at least 450 plate appearances with a .769 OPS.)

Most concerning was his inability to drive the ball because of his weakened knees. Only 12.7 percent of Utley's batted balls in 2011 were line drives, according to Fangraphs.com. That was worse than every other player with a minimum of 450 plate appearances except Los Angeles' Vernon Wells.

"There's no doubt that the things I was doing didn't allow me to strengthen my legs," Utley said. "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."

But it was hard not to wonder about the Chris Carpenter fastball Utley hit to the center-field warning track in the ninth inning of Game 5. That was the 475th time Utley had gone to the plate in a season that tested his patience.

Is it a game-tying home run if Utley's knees let him drive the ball as he had before?

"Who knows?" he said. "Possibly."

Did Utley replay it in his head this winter?

"I've thought about it a few times," he said.

Does it bother Utley that it was that close?

"You have that moment every single night," he said. "That was one I wish I could've had back, for sure."

Utley, despite saying the initial weeks back in the majors were trying, denied the notion that he had returned too soon in 2011. "It wasn't an ideal situation, obviously," he said. Utley has not totally ruled out surgery, but he's willing to take a chance on the management program the Phillies have adopted.

And Utley does not believe he must change the way he plays. Last spring, he was focused on being healthy. This spring, Utley says his knee "feels significantly better." Instead of getting on the field, Utley can discover what works best for the most production and endurance.

He became a father this winter, to a baby boy, which he called "pretty awesome." But that's about as excited as Utley gets.

"It's probably changed me a little bit away from the field," he said, "but once I get to the field, it's pretty much the same thing."

That means the pride is still standing.

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

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

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