Chase Utley wasn’t a second baseman during the Philadelphia Phillies’ last two spring camps. He was a shadow.
Every day, it seemed, the same whispers circulated around Bright House Field: When will Chase be ready to play? Can he take batting practice? How’s he moving around in the field? Playing catch? Taking grounders? Think he’ll be able in the Opening Day lineup? What’s he saying? Which knee is it again?
Will he ever be the same?
In 2011, here were Utley’s spring training statistics: 0 games, 0 at-bats.
In 2012, here were Utley’s spring training statistics: 0 games, 0 at-bats.
In 2013? The Phillies have played four Grapefruit League games, and Utley has appeared in two of them, going 1 for 3 with a walk and an RBI.
“This,” Utley told me Monday morning, “is what spring training is supposed to be.”
Think about that for a moment: Utley’s start in Saturday’s opener against Houston was his first spring training game since 2010. That year happened to be the last time Utley appeared in more than 110 games and posted an OPS greater than .800.
For Utley, the last two seasons were a blur of MRI exams, doctors’ opinions and not as much baseball as he would have liked. During spring training in 2011, the Phillies said Utley received a cortisone injection in an effort to treat “tendinitis, chondromalacia, and bone inflammation” in his right knee. Ultimately, a similar condition affected his left knee.
The impact on Utley’s production — and the Phillies’ fortunes — was apparent.
• From 2005 through 2009, Utley averaged 151 games, 29 home runs, 101 RBI and a .922 OPS. The Phillies won three division titles, two National League pennants and one World Series.
• From 2010 through 2012, Utley averaged 100 games, 13 home runs, 51 RBI and an .800 OPS. The Phillies won one playoff series.
Something to think about: If the ’11 Phillies had the ’09 Utley, do you think they would have beaten the Cardinals in that epic five-game NL Division Series? I do. And then perhaps the Texas Rangers would have a world championship, and maybe Tony La Russa would have reconsidered his plans to retire, and … well … you get the idea. Utley is awfully important.
He’s also 34 and entering the final year of his contract. Utley has millions of dollars — maybe tens of millions — riding on his performance this season, just like teammates Roy Halladay, Michael Young and Carlos Ruiz. The pressure of contract years could have positive effects on the four prospective free agents — and consequently the Phillies, coming off a mediocre 81-81 season and their first October without a playoff berth since 2006.
Of course, Utley must get on the field in order to demonstrate his value. He’s done that so far, after overhauling his offseason regimen following input from Phillies head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan and Brett Fischer, a Phoenix-based athletic trainer.
Before last season, doctors recommended to Utley that he focus on strengthening the muscle groups around his knees. Clearly, that didn’t work. So he incorporated more baseball-specific movements in his work leading up to this season. Whereas Utley used to wait until January before taking ground balls, this time he started in October. He also adjusted his expectations: Fischer explained to Utley that he shouldn’t let pain halt his workouts altogether, that he could make progress as long as the discomfort remained under a “2” on a scale of 1 to 10.
“The biggest thing I got from him was the mindset: ‘Hey, this is going to be uncomfortable at first, but these are things you have to do to stay on the baseball field,’” Utley said. “Over the course of time, you’ll be able to do more movements, more weight, more intensity, and keep that pain threshold under a ‘2.’ A ‘2’ is definitely manageable.
“It’s something I’m going to have to stay on top of. Is there a possibility I can completely put it behind me? Yeah. But I’m not looking at it like that. I’m looking at it like I’m trying to attack the situation. And so far, so good.”
There are those who believe the Phillies’ veteran core is not what it once was, that the best years of Utley’s career are behind him. But at least Utley is healthy enough to have a chance at proving them wrong.
“There were some frustrating days, but I try not to let them affect the big picture,” Utley said. “I try to stay positive. I tried to do everything I could to get on the field the last two years. Eventually, I did. Was I as strong as I have been in the past? No. But I got on the field, and that’s what I was trying to do.
“This offseason was more than just trying to get on the field. This offseason was focused on getting stronger and becoming a baseball player — knowing I’ll be on the field.”
Now that he’s accomplished that, Philadelphians are ready with an immediate follow-up: Congratulations and everything, but are you gonna be as good as you used to be?
Utley, never one to make bold public statements, responded to that question by saying this: “I feel like I still have a lot to offer on a baseball field.” One might interpret that as Utley holding himself to low expectations, but I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, Utley’s answer was far better than the stock response we hear from other players about how they’re in the best shape of their lives. Utley’s always been a doer, not a talker. However understated, this was an expression of confidence — an indication that he’s not merely standing at second base but in baseball shape.
Utley seized an opportunity to prove that in the first inning of Monday’s game against the Tigers. With Cliff Lee on the mound, Torii Hunter smacked a hard-hit grounder to the right side. Utley ranged quickly to his left, dove (!) and scooped the ball in one smooth motion.
Phillies fans seemed to immediately recognize the significance of what they had witnessed: Here was Utley, sprawling on the infield, during spring training — something he hadn’t done in three years. When Utley rose and zipped a throw to Ryan Howard for the out, the cheer went beyond the normal spring-training golf clap.
“I loved seeing it,” new teammate Michael Young said. “I’m a big fan of Chase. I love how he plays the game. To see him moving around, healthy, making plays — that’s a huge positive for our team. The biggest thing for our club is staying healthy. I’m sure 30 teams are saying the same thing. But this is one of those rare teams where the sky really is the limit if we keep everyone on the field.
“We take a lot of ground balls here, which I love, and Chase has been right in the middle of it. He’s getting all his work in. He looks great. He looks fresh. He’s got a spring in his step. Everyone knows what Chase is capable of doing when he’s on the field. He’s a flat-out great player.”
Lee acknowledged that he hadn’t seen that incarnation of Utley ranging around like that during the past two years. “It’s been tough for him the past couple years with the knee issues … but he’s got it figured out,” Lee said. “It’s something he’s got a grasp on now. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an issue, but you never know.”
That’s true. We don’t know what will happen over the 162 meaningful games to come. But I can say this with certainty: When Utley has been healthy, the Phillies have had excellent baseball teams. And Utley is healthy now.