Here in a minor-league ballpark, amid the distractions of minor-league fun, stood a major-league-ready player.
The road back has been long and grueling for the man with two bad knees who has played second base for the Phillies since 2004. Finally, 22 days after appearing in his first game in extended spring training, Utley, who went 2 for 5 as the IronPigs defeated Rochester, 10-3, appears ready to join the Phillies for the first time this season.
"I'll talk with Ruben tonight," Utley said, referring to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and the prospect of joining the Phillies on Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to moving forward. I feel confident."
It wasn't Utley's bat that held him back. It's been his knees and his ability to play second base on those knees.
Two and a half hours before the game, Utley fielded ground balls off the bat of a Hall of Fame second baseman.
Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg knocked ball after ball to Utley. The first few were right at the 33-year-old. Then Sandberg began to make Utley work. He fielded balls hit to his right. He fielded grounders to his left. Sandberg made him work, and Utley made each of them look easier than the last.
How did Utley look to the man with a plaque in Cooperstown?
"Well, he didn't miss any," Sandberg said with a smile. "I got a little thrill from doing it. I've admired how he conducts himself from afar. He's a professional."
Before the game, Utley spent 15 minutes signing autographs down the first-base line. Screaming fans dangled markers, bats, balls, hats, and baseball cards in front of his face, calling out his name.
"Chase, we need you back on the Phillies," one fan yelled as Utley was wrapping up the autograph session. "You need to teach them how to hit."
After starting the 2011 season on the disabled list, Utley hit .259 with 11 homers and 21 doubles in 103 games. The Phillies have 86 games remaining this season.
Utley said he was a little more confident at this point than he was when activated last season.
"My legs are the key," he said. "I didn't have a lot of leg strength last year. They feel better now."
Utley didn't field a grounder until the sixth inning, when he charged to his left and didn't have time to underhand-toss it to first baseman Cody Overbeck. So he flicked a sidearm throw for the out.
Utley lined out to left in the first inning, singled to left in the second, drilled the homer in the fourth, struck out looking in the sixth, and struck out swinging in the eighth.
"It's a great sign for him with where he's at," Sandberg said. "It's exciting for the organization. And obviously very exciting for everyone here."
Utley's fourth inning solo shot bounced once on the right field walkway before squeezing behind the black iron fence and exiting the stadium. A man reached his hand between the fence to grab the ball off the grass and was crushed by a slew of other ball-seeking fans. He sacrificed his shoulder and came up limping. After all that, he smiled - because this wasn't just a minor-leaguer hitting a home run. This was a big leaguer who happened to be in a minor-league park.
Contact Chad Graff at email@example.com or 215-854-4550. Follow him
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