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At last, our long regional nightmare is over. Chase Utley was once the very best second baseman in the game, and he was on a Hall of Fame track. His knees were uncooperative pools of bone and gaseous cartilage, though, so it's been a while since we've seen him on a baseball field.
Good news, then:
Utley rejoins a Phillies team that isn't where he left it. The Phillies are in last place, and the offense is struggling miserably. In Utley's absence, a cavalcade of second basemen have hit poorly, combining for a .246/.271/.381 line that was the worst of any non-pitcher position on the team.
In 10 minor-league rehab games, Utley did worse than that, actually, hitting .189/.279/.351 between A-ball and Triple-A. But he's still Chase Utley, and it's hard to see how he couldn't help. Even if he stands on one leg in the batter's box like a sleeping flamingo, he is probably still the best hitter the Phillies have in the infield.
Utley has not hit particularly well in his 20-day stint in the minor leagues. His rehab assignment ends July 1, and it appears Phillies manager Charlie Manuel wants Utley back with the club as soon as possible.
Jim Salisbury has more at CSNPhilly.com:
Utley played eight innings at second base for Single A Clearwater on Saturday night. It marked the first time he had played defense in consecutive games on his chronically sore knees since October. Playing defense on back-to-back days was considered an important step in Utley’s return to the active roster.
Utley is now expected to travel to Philadelphia for the final stage of his rehab assignment. That is likely to include his playing in one more minor-league game, probably Tuesday at Triple A Lehigh Valley, before being activated for Wednesday’s game against Pittsburgh – provided there are no setbacks.
In nine games with Single A Clearwater, Utley has batted .156 with a homer and five RBIs in 32 at bats.
Manuel said he thinks Utley could return to the team next week if all continues to go well.
— Pat Gallen (@PatGallen_PN) June 21, 2012
“Going well”, one presumes, is to have Utley be able to play defense and run without having his knee troubles recur. Since he’s been able to play every day, that appears to be what’s happening.
Utley could spend up to 20 days in a rehab assignment — currently, he’s playing at Class-A Clearwater — but it would appear that manager Charlie Manuel would like to have the former All-Star back as soon as possible. The Phillies, racked with injuries all season, currently stand eight games out of first place in the NL East, but at just four games under .500, could still get back in the race.
So goes their thinking, anyway.
The Phillies' second baseman, coming back from a knee injury, played in his first rehab-assignment game Tuesday. It did not go well.
When last we left the Chase Utley return saga, he was fielding ground balls during batting practice. That was 18 days ago, on May 17.
Time marches on. The Phillies are in last place, although with a winning record and just 3½ games out of first place. They’d clearly love to have their former All-Star second baseman back, presuming he is ready to play.
And now he is going to play! Although, not in an actual league game anywhere:
Utley will begin playing in extended spring games tomorrow.
— Matt Gelb (@magelb) June 3, 2012
It’s getting kind of late for extended spring training. Many of the players there will be off to short-season leagues soon. But Chase Utley plugs on, working his way back to the Phillies. Given this time frame, it could still be some time before Utley goes on a minor-league rehab assignment, and even longer before we see him with the major-league Phillies.
If the headline doesn't read that exciting, well, it's more important than you thing. Chase Utley's degenerative knee condition is extremely painful, and the Phillies second baseman says the pain is at its worst when he's in the field. From Matt Gelb:
For the first time since rejoining the team May 5, Chase Utley fielded ground balls during batting practice. He moved side-to-side and at full speed for the duration of practice.
There is still no exact timetable for Utley's return, and in his absence, the Phillies have used Freddy Galvis, who's hit .235 with a .273 on-base percentage. The good news is that his slugging percentage is .374, which is probably a little higher than what the Phillies were expecting. So, yeah.
With Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard out, the Phillies' offense has sputtered. But their pitching has kept them in games, and they got to the .500 mark on Wednesday night.
The Philadelphia Phillies are in last place in the NL East. After 17 games, the Phillies have seven wins and the second-lowest runs total in the National League. They could really, really use Chase Utley.
As for Utley? Maybe the best way to explain it is with the teaser text that Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer sent out in a tweet to promote an update on Utley's progress:
Secrets and questions linger in Chase Utley's rehab, but he believes he's made real progress.
There has been an air of mystery about Utley's injury. It hasn't been as simple as "knee contusion - 15 days" -- Utley will be back when his knees can handle it. From Matt Gelb:
"I'm not happy that I'm not playing," Utley, 33, said. "But I'm looking at it from a positive, like I always have. I've definitely gained strength over the past three weeks." Those three weeks have provided optimism for the second baseman. Utley took batting practice with the Phillies at Chase Field before Monday's game. He fielded some ground balls for the first time in two months. He smiled.
And that's the update on Chase Utley: He's trying to strengthen his knees and limit the pain. When will he be back? When his knees are strong enough, and when the pain is gone. How soon will that be? As soon as his knees are strong enough and his pain is gone. He feels like he's making progress, at least.
It isn't too common for players to give press conferences to update the media on a condition that hasn't changed much, but Chase Utley held a press conference on Sunday to update the world on how his knees feel. Turns out that the things people invented during his silence were scarier than the truth. Microfracture surgery. Retirement. Ryan Theriot trade rumors. The works.
But while Utley concedes that he isn't going to be ready for Opening Day, he isn't looking at any extreme options. From CSN Philly:
"I’m not looking at any surgery," Utley said. "I’m not looking at any type of injections. I’m looking at a daily routine that consists of manual therapy, strength training, mobilization of the joints."
If you want to see some video of the interview ...
Utley flew to Arizona last week to visit a knee specialist, who developed a rehabilitation plan that did not involve surgery. When asked if he could have been ready for Opening Day if he had made the trip to Arizona earlier, Utley replied that he felt "pretty good coming into camp," so the extent of the knee pain seems to have surprised everyone.
The headline reads like something juicier than it is. You might think that the Rangers outfielder is spouting off about Chase Utley. Or maybe you think that the Mets' second baseman or Miami Marlins' outfielder is spouting off because you can't keep David, Donnie, and Daniel straight. Alas, this is David Murphy, the columnist for Philly.com.
But Murphy is wondering if Chase Utley is going to ever be right again. The quote from the article that sums it up best:
"He's not that old," Manuel said.
That's the money quote. Because Utley isn't that old. It doesn't seem fair for a 33-year-old to fight degenerative, chronic knee problems, and Murphy recounts his accomplishments, noting that Utley once seemed to be on a certain Hall of Fame path.
It is worth noting that Utley admitted in February that he could not yet rule out surgery. The exact procedure that is on the table is, of course, a secret. But all the information you really need about that surgery - the expected length of recovery, the chances of success - can be inferred from the fact that he did not choose to have it this offseason.
The idea of a serious surgery is scary in terms of this season...
"If he doesn't play again that would be something horrible," said Jimmy Rollins, Utley's longtime doubleplay partner. "That would be horrible. But I don't see it that way. At least I hope that's not the case."
But if you read between the lines with this quote, you can tell that the headline isn't that inflammatory. It's an honest question. Because when you go up to a teammate and ask if Player X's career is in jeopardy, the usual response would be "Get the hell out of here. Of course it isn't. He'll be fine." Rollins probably knows something a little more than the rest of us, yet he's giving us "I hope" his career isn't over. Sheeeesh.
But as usual with Utley, we don't know anything. The exact doctor he's seeing, the true prognosis, a general timetable for his return ... nothing. The article mentions Carlos Beltran as a player who came back after serious knee surgery. That's good. Then the article mentions Grady Sizemore. That's frightening.
The Phillies' All-Star second baseman is still out with knee issues.