Despite Phils Offensive Explosion, Utley Still Has a Long Way to Go

24 May

Utley was 0-for-5 in first game off the disabled list

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

The Philadelphia Phillies welcomed back second baseman Chase Utley Monday and I guess folks were expecting the Phillies anemic offense to find some life.

If you’re a fan and you were looking for any sign or revelation that Utley’s presence would inspire the Phils offense, the first four innings of the game definitely gave the 45, 841 fans at Citizen’s Bank Park Monday night some room for optimism. The Phils scored 10 runs—more runs than last weekend’s inter league series against the Texas Rangers in which they won two out of the three games.

It was the most runs they’ve scored since a 7-4 win over the Washington Nationals on May 5 and the first time since May 13 that the Phillies have scored more than three runs in a game.

The Phillies 10-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds probably gave fans the idea that prosperity is around the corner for the Phillies offense with Utley back in the lineup. His teammates felt the same way. The Phils got home runs from Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez.

“He’s a huge part of our team and we’ve definitely been missing him and it’s great to have him back,” Ibanez said.

I wouldn’t be that optimistic and to paraphrase Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. do not expect him to come in and be the team’s savior. It’s going to take some time considering the severity of his knee injury for Utley to be a true force in the Phillies lineup.

For one thing, I don’t doubt that Utley is healed from his knee injury, but I wonder how long it’s going to take for him to get back in the groove at the major league level? Granted, he was 9-for-32 with a pair of doubles, four runs batted in and a home run with a .361 on-base percentage and a .438 for single- A Clearwater (Fla.).

If Utley hits that well against major league pitching then it will spark the Phillies offense. However, the reality is that it’s going take him some time to get back to where he was back in 2009 when he batted .282 with 31 homeruns and 93 runs batted in.

Against the Reds Monday night, Utley was 0-for-5 and had a couple of deep fly-ball outs. In the field, he snagged a high-line drive that took him about a foot or two off the ground and he moved well to cover second base on plays in the infield.

“I’m feeling pretty good, a lot better than I’ve felt the past few months with a doubt,” Utley said. “I think that’s a positive sign. I’ve put in a lot of hard over the last few months to get to this point and I’m pretty satisfied with where we’re at. I would have like to have been out there earlier. It is what it is. I was just happy to be out there.”

Another thing to think about is how well will Utley’s knee take the pounding on a regular basis from playing second base. He will no doubt get a lot of contact from guys sliding at second to break up the double play. There will be times when he’ll have to leap to avoid someone barreling into him.

But leg injuries, regardless of the sport, take time to be in playing shape, on a regular basis. At the end of the National League Championship Series last season, Jimmy Rollins, who spent some time on the disabled list, told me that while his leg was healed, getting it to the point where he felt comfortable hitting and running was the hard part.

“To hit, you have to stand on your legs. When you get injured, especially in the lower half, you have to find ways to play without it hurting and that can lead to bad habits,” Rollins said last October.

With all the injuries that Utley has had over the years such as hip injury surgery after the 2008 season, there are some baseball observers who speculating that at the ripe “old” age of 32 that he is on the decline and that he will never get back to being the player he was from 2005 to 2009.

According to her blog that appeared on ESPN.com back in March, physical therapist Stephania Bell, who specializes in orthopedic therapy and sports medicine, Utley’s patellar tendinitis in his knees might be degenerative since the cartilage in that area of the knee is either damaged or severely weakened. She said it doesn’t necessarily affect him in hitting, but playing the field and running is her biggest worry for Utley.

“Perhaps the best analogy for Utley’s knee condition is that of a worn tire. You know that if you continue to drive on it, you may be able to get another 20,000 miles out of it, but if the tire blows, it won’t come as a great surprise. And if you put the car in the garage and “rest” it, it doesn’t improve the tire tread,” Bell wrote.

I’m not going to be so quick to write him off just yet because Utley is a grinder and he has the work ethic to get himself back to some semblance of his former self. I’m sure he’s on a rigorous program to keep his knee in shape. But if the condition in his knee is degenerative then the clock on his career could be ticking.

Only time will tell.

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