Positive talk from Utley about Phillies

Posted: January 15, 2014

In need of someone to say something nice about their ball club one month before pitchers and catchers gather in Clearwater, Fla., for the start of spring training, the Phillies called upon a man whose actions usually speak louder than his words.

Chase Utley, entering the first season of a two-year contract extension that guarantees him $27 million, agreed to take the assignment. It was no easy task when you consider that the team's talent and chemistry have been questioned by his own teammates since the last pitch of a 2013 season that was so bad it cost former manager Charlie Manuel his job.

From Cole Hamels' comments - "the hitting [stank]" and "the energy in the clubhouse changed" - in Philadelphia Magazine to Jonathan Papelbon's recent remarks to a Boston radio station about a lack of chemistry in the clubhouse, the hits have just kept coming for the Phillies this offseason. If only they had been as frequent during the season.

Utley, 35, tried his best to convince everyone that this could be the year that old turns to gold for the Phillies.

"I'm excited for this year," the second baseman said. "I've had a good offseason of training. I've talked to a few guys in this locker room and they've had the same [experience]. I'm excited to get everyone healthy and back on the field."

A baseball genie will not appear in Clearwater next month and promise the remaining stars from the 2008 and 2009 World Series teams that they all will feel great and be productive in 2014. The Phillies have to settle for a full year with new manager Ryne Sandberg and hope that first baseman Ryan Howard plays a full year for the first time since 2011.

"I've talked to [Howard], picked his brain," said Utley, who overcame chronically injured knees and played 131 games last season. "I haven't worked out with him, so I haven't seen him firsthand, but I know he said he's feeling good and I know in the past he hadn't been feeling that great. He's a guy who wants to be out there, so if he's not you know he has to be hurting pretty bad. I know he's getting stronger, he's getting his legs under him after having the Achilles issue. It's not an easy thing to recover from."

Utley wasn't just trying to sell a healthy Howard. He also endorsed the free-agent signings of rightfielder Marlon Byrd and righthander Roberto Hernandez, moves that created more frustration than excitement with fans.

"If you want to be successful, you have to have some confidence," Utley said. "Adding Marlon, he's a strong guy, he plays a great outfield, and he's kind of a gamer. He plays the game the right way, the way I like it to be played. You're going to get that from him every single day."

If the Phillies get what Byrd gave the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates last season, it will help them. If they get what Hernandez gave the Tampa Bay Rays, however, they will come up tremendously short in the pitching department. They need Hernandez to pitch the way the man previously known as Fausto Carmona did in 2007.

Utley, who had his best offensive season since 2009 last year, did not question Hamels' complaints about the offense, which finished in the bottom third of baseball in almost every major category.

"I definitely believe we can swing the bats better," he said. "There are a lot of things you can point to last year. As a team, we lost. It wasn't just our hitting and it wasn't just our pitching or just our defense. Overall, we just didn't get it done and we have to improve on all aspects.

"I think we can hit better, pitch better, and play better defense. But we have to have that mentality that we want to improve. It's not a game of finger-pointing. It's a game of working together and trying to improve. And I think we will do that."

Given his quiet demeanor, it's no surprise that Utley believes what goes on in the clubhouse should be treated like a Las Vegas weekend.

"I think last year was a tough year for everybody, and it can be frustrating at times," he said. "I totally understand the frustration. I've always been the one to say, 'What happens in the clubhouse should stay in the clubhouse.' That's the motto I've lived by over the years and I'm going to continue to do that. We're all going to sit down and talk during spring training and figure out if there were problems, what they were, and how to correct them. But the main thing is to come to spring training healthy, fired up - which I know we are - and ready to get to work."

That's the attitude needed and, by his own account, Utley is ready to show up at spring training for the second straight year healthy after continuing his baseball-specific workouts at the University of San Francisco in the same manner he did a year ago. He also was willing to show up Monday in an effort to drum up some excitement about the Phillies' 2014 season.

Utley should not be surprised that the actions of the 2014 Phillies will matter a lot more than his words.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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