After pounding the outstretched fist of Carlos Ruiz, he bounded into the dugout, where he disappeared into a sea of white. While his teammates smiled and shouted and slapped various parts of his body, the veteran second baseman with the balky knees bobbed down the line with arms clenched and his lips taut, like a boxer in the waning seconds of a victorious fight.
In that moment, you felt a sense of what all of this has meant to the human who lurks beneath that unyielding face. At certain times in years past, Utley would seem to delight in the questions about his health, his eyes flickering with an amused gleam whenever somebody asked whether he needed a break. That gleam was absent Wednesday night, in its place a burning mixture of passion and defiance that seemed to serve notice: to his teammates and fans, the commencement of his season; to his doubters, the postponement of his death.
Four hours later, when somebody asked him whether he had taken the questions about his future personally, Utley did not flinch.
"One hundred percent," he said. "I think anybody who knows me knows what kind of guy I am. I put a lot of work into this."
In all likelihood, that is the most we will ever know about Utley's mind-set as he worked his way back from the chronic knee condition that cost him the start of the last two seasons. But even in March, when the Phillies seemed to be caught off guard by his health, the veteran second baseman referenced the doubts. After chiding reporters for speculating about his short- and long-term future, Utley made an uncharacteristic plea.
"If anything," he said, "I'm looking for a little support here."
The words read meeker than they sounded at the time they were spoken. Still, this was Chase Utley, the closest thing to a Marlboro man that Philadelphia has ever possessed. When did he ever need a little support, much less ask for it?
Three months later, Utley again referred to the doubts, this time, this time as he prepared to make one final rehab start before his activation from the disabled list on Wednesday.
"I know there are some people who have given up on me," he said. "There are some people who have given up on this team. I'll be the first one to tell you that I definitely have not given up on myself, and our guys have not given up on this year."
Doubt can be a profound void, particularly for somebody who has experienced so little of it over the course of his life. It can paralyze, or it can propel, the difference often separating the good from the great. In his first plate appearance of 2012, Utley left little doubt about where he considers himself. You will not find many people who do not want to be proved wrong.
Few can doubt Utley's performance when healthy. In his first 8 weeks back from the disabled list in 2011, he hit .290 with a .380 on-base percentage, .498 slugging percentage and eight home runs. After, those numbers dropped to .220/.298/.333 and three home runs. He was excellent in the postseason, but later wondered whether a warning track flyout in Game 5 of the NLDS would have been a home run in previous years. Earlier this week, he said his his knees feel better than they have in quite some time. He also said something similar at the start of spring training.
For one night, all that mattered was that he was back. In addition his his home run, Utley contributed a single to a three-run rally in the seventh inning that cut the Phillies' deficit to 8-7, but he could not push home the tying run. The energy that pulsed through the park from the moment he was introduced did not subside until Chad Qualls allowed three runs in the eighth inning, sealing an 11-7 loss.
"Obviously, it's a frustrating situation," said Utley, who finished 3-for-5. "I never wanted to be in this situation in the first place. But I have to battle through it. I feel like I have done a good job so far, and, hopefully, I can continue that."
For both the Phillies and their second baseman, there is plenty left to prove.
Contact David Murphy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese