Utley connects with Sandberg as he winds up rehab

Posted: June 28, 2012

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — More than 10,000 fans packed Coca-Cola Park.

The happiest men among them didn't pay to get in.

They might be the best second basemen of their generations; certainly, they helped redefine the expectations of the position.

One hit grounders and the other fielded them in the soft afternoon sunlight.

They were Ryne Sandberg, the IronPigs' manager and Hall of Fame second baseman, and Chase Utley, the Phillies' second baseman, down for a final rehab tuneup.

It was, perhaps, the most high-wattage fungo session involving second basemen in Triple A history: 470 home runs, 15 All-Star games, 11 Silver Slugger awards.

Utley, a reserved sort, was happy to be on the cusp of resuming his chase of Sandberg's legacy. He has missed the first 76 Phillies games with a chronic knee issue. He played nine long innings Tuesday night, and, after conferring with general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., he hopes to play Wednesday night against the Pirates.

"So far, so good," Utley said. "I'm looking forward to moving forward."

Tuesday night, Utley hit third, his customary spot with the Phillies, and he ripped the ball three times in five at-bats, including a towering, 400-foot home run to right-centerfield. He collected two of the IronPigs' season-high 18 hits, infusing the Pigs with offensive pop the big-league team clearly needs.

He also looked downright elegant in the field; Sandberg-elegant, in fact.

He was happy to be ready to return to the Phillies' lineup?…?and happy to be in the presence of a legend.

"It was definitely an honor to play under him," Utley said. "I took batting practice off him. He hit me fungoes. It's great."

Sandberg, a reserved sort, was happy to be hitting ground balls to a player of Utley's ilk. Giddy, it seemed, if Sandberg ever gets giddy.

"I get a little thrill from it, for sure. I got a kick out of hitting ground balls to him," Sandberg said. "I've admired how he goes about his business."

Tuesday, it was business as usual for Utley — no big-timing, no big-leagueing. Just baseball.

He drove himself to Allentown.

He arrived more than 6 hours before the game — remarkable for a major leaguer on a 1-day rehab visit.

Some stars would find out where the food would be, or find out where to get a can of tobacco, or find out why his No. 26 was being worn by the pig mascot and not him.

Utley accepted No. 21 as a matter of course. He wore the team-issued batting helmet instead of bringing his personal model.

His first order of business:

Find Sandberg.

"He walked up to me and asked what the signs were. What the bunt-play sign is," Sandberg marveled. "He's here to play a baseball game. That's real professional."

"It's cool to see an All-Star big-leaguer come down here and be a part of the team," said Jason Pridie, a Met in the majors last year who went 4-for-5 hitting behind Utley, the best part of the 18 hits. "You feed off that."

Utley did manage one big-league move: He had the postgame spread catered by Shula's Steak House.

Utley, had little reason to interact with Sandberg the past two spring trainings. Sandberg had heard from mutual acquaintances of the Utley aura. He didn't believe it, really. It sounded too familiar.

Tuesday was a revelation for Sandberg; and Sandberg, like Utley, is a hard man to impress.

"[Friends] made comparisons when they've talked to me about what his work ethic is, his pregame, how he goes about his business, how he plays the game — with respect — and how he gets after it."

So, did Utley remind Sandberg of Sandberg, circa 1990, in the midst of perennial MVP contention?

"Oh, yeah. Yeah. Quite a bit. All business. Not a lot of talk. Quiet leader. Vocal leader when you have to be. Being prepared every single day to play. To perform. Up to the standards both he and I have created. A lot of similarities. It's easy to talk to him, because we're on the same page with everything."

Sandberg was the steadiest fielder the position has known. It was no coincidence that it was Sandberg, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, who hit ground balls to Utley.

"I saw good quickness. A good, quick first step," Sandberg said. "I saw a lot of hop."

Indeed, before the game and during it, Utley looked remarkably?…?what?

Spry? That's it. Spry.

He is 33, but he hasn't moved this easily in a long time.

He looked light on his feet, smooth and loose in the field, loaded on his back leg, hammer hands at the plate.

He hasn't looked like that, consistently, in 4 years.

He might not look like that, consistently, next week.

We all will find out.

His final swing in batting practice hit the base of the rightfield wall. The previous swing put a ball on the concourse beyond the wall. It was a valid precursor to what followed.

Utley drilled a twisting liner to leftfield in the first inning.

He stroked a single to left in the second.

In the fourth, he fought back from 0-2 then torqued a 1-2 changeup into his natural power alley, his second homer in 10 total minor league rehab starts; he played nine games at Class A Clearwater.

Where he was 5-for-32.

He didn't look like a .156 hitter Tuesday night.

In the fifth, against lefthanded reliever Caleb Thielbar, he took strike three to end the inning. It was low. He didn't complain as the throng protested. Sandberg probably frowned a little, too.

In the eighth, he fanned against Casey Fien's 92-mph high heat.

Utley knows the fans came to see him hit. But, he said, he came Allentown to play the field, to read balls off the bats of the best hitters in the minors, to deal with the best baserunners not in the major leagues.

"The game was a little faster," Utley said.

He had no problems.

In the first, he fired a bullet of a relay to third base and nearly nipped Rochester's leadoff batter, who tripled.

In the fifth, he charged a chopper and flipped a throw across his body to end the inning, his first real play in the field. He ended the next inning charging hard to his left, snared a chopper and pitched it to first.

They were, he said, the toughest plays he'd had to make on his road back.

He made them like a big-leaguer.

And he didn't big-league anybody. n

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

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