Utley's return gives Phillies hope

Posted: June 29, 2012

Beneath one of Harry the K's brick walls, where supersize photos of the Phillies' starting lineup greet those entering Citizens Bank Park's northwest gates, a lone fan focused his cellphone camera on the familiar figure adorning the third banner from the left.

"Chase," he said in a tone blending excitement and reverence, "is back where he belongs."

The darkness hovering over this Phillies season, all of which had transpired without the glow of the struggling team's two brightest stars, gave way briefly Wednesday night as finally, in Game 77, Chase Utley made his 2012 debut.

Dramatically, as if his extended absence had been a teasing buildup for the moment, the all-star second-baseman infused a frustrating Phillies season with some hope and promise, smacking a long home run to right-center in his first at-bat and singling twice during an 11-7 loss to Pittsburgh.

"It was pretty exciting," Utley said afterward in an otherwise silent clubhouse. "The fans were awesome like they always have been. It was nice to hit the ball hard my first at-bat. . . . I was just excited to be out there. It's been a long road to get to this point. There was a lot of emotions and a lot of adrenaline."

The tantalizing and well-timed glimpse of power Utley could rarely muster in an injury-stunted 2011 generated a third standing ovation for him in 15 minutes. Then, after he raced around the bases and dipped into the dugout, he acknowledged a raucous curtain call with a hurried wave and doff of his cap.

"He definitely was fired up," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Our team was fired up when we came out of the gate like that."

This latest long-delayed comeback of their No. 3 hitter, his superb career jeopardized these last two years by chronic chondromalacia in his knees, came on the same day the Phils announced Ryan Howard would begin a rehab assignment in Lakewood, N.J., on Thursday.

Whether all this encouraging news generates anxiety among the Phillies division rivals remains to be seen. But on a hot, windswept night, it did create an excited buzz at the ballpark, something too frequently missing as the five-time defending National League East champs have stumbled through nearly half a season.

"I think with Chase coming back, there'll be a different energy in the ballpark and in our clubhouse," Manuel predicted.

In the stands, several fans held signs welcoming Utley while others chanted his name. The mere mention of that name during public address announcer Dan Baker's pregame introductions precipitated one standing ovation and later, in the bottom of the first, so did Utley's first big-league plate appearance in 263 days.

"I'm definitely psyched," said Mike Myers, 45, of Millville, N.J. "I had an opportunity to get tickets for tonight's game, and when I found out Utley would be back, it made it even sweeter."

Myers wore an Utley jersey, as did his wife, Gigi, and 11-year-old son, Nick. "We love the guy," he said.

Though the Phillies maintained a baseball cool about the return, leaving the intensely focused Utley to conduct his own pregame routine in private, this clearly was no ordinary day.

In the clubhouse before the game, a larger-than-normal media contingent hovered near the player's locker.

"We win two games, Chase comes back, and all you guys who were [bad-mouthing] us last week are back," Shane Victorino joked to a cluster of reporters.

Utley's maddeningly long rehabilitation had concluded with his playing at minor-league Clearwater, Fla., and Lehigh Valley. There, he looked out of place in the unfamiliar uniforms and, on Tuesday night, a double-flapped helmet.

But back in red pinstripes, back in the lineup's three- hole, back at the spot in the reddish infield clay where he's been a fixture throughout the most successful era in franchise history, the 33-year-old seemed at home - even if he was still bitter about those who suggested he was being too cautious.

"Anybody who knows me, they know what kind of guy I am," he said. "I put a lot of work into this. I never wanted to be in this situation in the first place, but I have to battle through it."

Eager to keep Utley in a lineup that could also include Howard in July, Manuel said he'd rest him Thursday for the Pirates series finale, though he would be available to pinch-hit.

"Him and I talked, and we're going to try two on and one off for a little while before the all-star break," Manuel said. "It's very important we try to keep him where he feels good every day. From there we'll see how long it takes until we turn him loose."

He certainly roamed free Wednesday. In his second at-bat off Pirates starter James McDonald in the third inning, Utley's short swing propelled the ball 400 feet to dead-center before Andrew McCutchen gloved it. Three innings later, he singled on a ball shortstop Josh Harrison couldn't handle, and in the seventh singled again. Utley again flew out to McCutchen in the ninth.

The homer and the deep flies suggested the extra time off might have allowed his knees to provide him with a stronger base than in 2011.

"Maybe a little bit," he said. "I worked a lot at trying to get my legs strong, and I still feel like there's a lot of room for improvement. But I feel like there's a good base at this point to build on."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

 

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