Marcus Hayes: Chase Utley eager to get back on the field for Phillies

Posted: June 27, 2012

THE IRONPIGS are sold out Tuesday night.

The first 3,000 fans 18 and older get bobbleheads in the likeness of John Mayberry Jr.

Coincidentally, Chase Utley also will make his only scheduled Triple A rehab start.

There hardly could be a better juxtaposition of iconic elements in this Phillies season.

Without Utley, the guts of the franchise, the Phillies are a spineless 35-40.

Mayberry, considered the organization's Prime Outfield Prospect, is hitting .238. He has been supplanted by bench players Juan Pierre and Ty Wiggington.

Forgive the Phillies Nation if it is aglow with expectation at Utley's return.

A chronic knee condition persuaded Utley to forestall his 2012 season until now. After nine games in Class A, he wants to play at Lehigh Valley Tuesday night to confirm that his defense at second base is ready for prime time.

He expects to debut in Philadelphia Wednesday.

Utley said his legs haven't felt this strong since he injured the labrum in his right hip, an injury that the team thinks happened during Utley's maniacal offseason training regimen before the 2008 campaign.

Utley hit .310 and averaged 27 home runs and 103 RBI from 2005 through 2007, his first seasons as a full-time player.

He hit .279 and averaged 23 homers and 76 RBI in the following four seasons.

Can Utley again be what he was 4 years ago?

"I do believe that," said Utley, who expects to play five or six games per week. "Having my legs under me is an important part of that. Time will tell? …?It's probably been a few years since I've had this much strength in my legs. This is a work in progress. I can get them stronger."

He will not recognize the pressure that will hit him in waves in the next months. He will play, and his teammates will play, and they will win, he said.

"There's plenty of time," Utley said. "There are some people who have given up on me. There are some people who have given up on this team. I definitely haven't given up on myself. I know our guys haven't given up on this year."

In the past, Utley would have said that with a snarl, or a sneer. Monday, he said it with a smile.

He was happy. For a change.

Only 33, Utley has been, for the past four seasons, curmudgeonly.

A wounded alpha lion, miserable, irritable.

Joyless.

Now, we know why.

He doubted his future.

He feared being less than he was.

He hated being worth less than his $85 million salary.

For the moment, at least, Utley said he isn't thinking that way.

"I'm definitely getting closer. I'm optimistic. Encouraged by the way things went," Utley said. He is not pain-free, but, he said, "I'm in a much better place than I was a month ago. I wouldn't be out there if I felt uncomfortable."

He believes the old Chase is inside him, just waiting to burst out.

Apparently, the old Chase is hiding deep, deep inside him.

Utley hit .156 with one homer and five RBI in nine games at Class A Clearwater during his rehab assignment.

Then again, Phillies second basemen Michael Martinez, Freddy Galvis, Pete Orr and Monday night's starter, Mike Fontenot, combined to hit .241 with five homers and 37 RBI entering the game against the Pirates.

It is not the fault of Fontenot or Orr or Martinez or Galvis (who is injured and suspended) or even Mayberry that the Phillies have owned fifth place much of the year. Utley and cleanup hitter Ryan Howard, also injured, have yet to play.

Ace Roy Halladay also is hurt. Elite lefty Cliff Lee is winless, and inconsistent. The middle of the bullpen is battered and ineffective. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have not carried their share.

None of them affects the dugout and the clubhouse the way Utley affects the dugout and the clubhouse.

He holds stragglers accountable.

He arrives every day spitting fire, eager to stomp the blood out of whomever the Phillies are facing.

Monday, as Utley prepared to participate in batting practice, he passed the royal thrones of Lee, Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon as they reigned at the far end of the clubhouse. He fired a joke at them and breezed past.

He crackled with an aura that made them seem almost ... common.

"He's one of our leaders," manager Charlie Manuel said.

No.

He is the leader.

In the lineup, Howard is the hammer.

Everywhere, Utley is the leader.

Utley is the one diving at balls he cannot reach, the one running through first base on soft grounders and scooting all the way to second on pop flies.

Hard on the knees.

Good for the heart.

"To be honest, I don't plan on changing how I play," Utley said. "I play the game the way it should be played. I play hard every single day. That's not going to change."

The example might affect change in the rest of the lineup.

The Phillies miss him desperately, and they miss him tangibly.

They have zero wins when trailing entering the ninth inning.

Utley thundered onto the Phillies scene in July 2004 with this moment: a game-tying home run off Braves superstar closer John Smoltz that tied it in the ninth.

Utley is made for those moments. At least, he was.

From 2004-2007, late in close games, Utley hit .295 with 15 homers and 70 RBI before he began to lose his legs.

He is hitting .234 with nine homers and 38 RBI in the four seasons since.

Late in games, the legs start to go. Utley believes he has his legs under him now.

How far can they carry the Phillies?

Certainly, further than they've come with Mayberry … et al. n

Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/MarcusHayes.

|
|
|
|
|