Phillies second baseman Chase Utley continues his solid spring

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley has shown no signs this spring of the knee trouble that bothered him the previous two seasons.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley has shown no signs this spring of the knee trouble that bothered him the previous two seasons.
Posted: March 15, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Chase Utley slowly shuffled further off the bag at first base, and then, with a quick first step, broke for second base.

But Domonic Brown fouled off the pitch. Utley retreated to first base.

The scene played out again later in the at-bat. Utley broke, Brown fouled off, and Utley retreated.

Brown ended up striking out in his sixth inning at-bat against Pittsburgh lefthander Andy Oliver. But when Darin Ruf took over in the batter's box, Utley continued his pursuit of second base.

He broke for a third time and arrived safely for his first stolen base of the spring.

It's a Grapefruit League stat, and thus a pretty meaningless stat, but for a player who hadn't touched a field for a game in either of the two previous springs because of a couple of bad knees, it was at the very least a notable stat.

Another notable observation: When he took the field on Thursday, Utley had played in three games in 3 straight days for the first time this spring. He played all nine innings at second base in the Phillies' 2-1 win.

"Things are going well," Utley said. "Every day I feel good, which is a positive sign."

Professional athletes are at their place in their respective sports because of their obvious physical skills. But the best of the best are also mentally strong and share a familiar trait: They can mask injuries.

They can tell you they feel fine when they really know something's not quite right. Because if they can't convince themselves, how can they take the field, ice or court with any confidence?

But even if his bat has been late on arrival as far as production, Utley has looked strong and healthy this spring.

He's running at full strength with his usual, near-reckless effort up the first baseline. He's taking the field regularly with his teammates and not retreating to a back field to take grounders while sitting on a stool, or being asked to define the word "chondromalacia," or being flown to Arizona to work with a personal trainer.

The Phillies will leave Clearwater in less than 2 weeks. Although worries over pitcher Roy Halladay have risen, Ryan Howard's power appears to be back in his legs and Utley remains confident he can start and finish a season on the field for the first time since 2010.

"I was pretty confident coming into spring training," Utley said of playing 140 or 150 games in 2013. "Obviously, playing down here, knowing there have been no issues at all, obviously that gives you a little more confidence for sure."

No issues. At all.

Repeat those words to Charlie Manuel and you might get a hug in return.

"Chase should be all right," the manager said after Utley went 2-for-4 with a double in Thursday's win. "Probably hit .320 with about 30 bombs. I'll give him 105 to 110 RBI. That would be all right."

Utley is hitting .206 (7-for-34) in 13 games this spring. He's struck out seven times and walked seven times. He had three extra-base hits. Two of those extra-base hits have come in the last three games, beginning with Utley's first home run of 2013 on Tuesday.

"He'll find his swing," Manuel said before Thursday's game.

Utley scalded two balls to rightfield for hits later in the day. In the field, he bobbled a ball for an error early, but, later in the game, stepped in front of a hard one-hopper and made the play without a problem.

After finding a program that worked this winter, keeping his legs in motion with baseball-specific drills, Utley's knees aren't a problem, either, at least compared with the last two springs.

"Now and at this point last year?" Utley said when asked about his infamous knees. "Way different. I mean, the last 2 years' spring training - there wasn't a spring training. It's nice to get out there, get my reps in."

With a little more than 2 weeks until Opening Day, Utley said there is still plenty of work ahead in Florida. And to maintain his legs, the work will continue into April, May, June and beyond, too.

He's looking forward to that challenge, of course, and providing the Phils with the middle-of-the-order bat they missed for large chunks of the last two seasons.

When he returned to the field in 2012 after missing the first 76 games, Utley homered in his first at-bat. Although he finished with the same home run total as he had a year earlier (11), the frequency was better in 2012.

Utley hit 11 home runs in 362 plate appearances, or one in every 33 trips to the plate, up from 11 in 454 plate appearances in 2011 (one every 41.3 trips to the plate).

"I definitely felt better last year," Utley said. "I definitely felt better last year than I did the year before. I was just trying to get an idea of what I needed to do to stay strong. It's still going to be a work in progress; there are still going to be adjustments that need to be made throughout the course of this year. But I'm up for it."

After stealing second base on Thursday, Utley wasn't finished running. With two outs and no one in front of him, Utley broke hard for home when Ruf flared a soft fly ball to shallow right.

Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker made the easy catch. But had he dropped it, Utley would have scored easily.

"I like where he's at," Manuel said. "He's going to be ready."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: philly.com/HighCheese

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