Despite the Phillies being in an all familiar National League East division lead there is no doubting the anticipation surrounding the return of their star second baseman. In last night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves skipper Charlie Manuel was asked how the Phillies could improve on their already impressive start and he simply stated “Get Utley back.” That is exactly what the Phillies hope to do in the month of May with Utley’s return seemingly right around the corner.
In the beginning of this 2011 baseball season all the controversy in South Philly revolved around the knee of Chase Utley. His first clear signs of progression seemed to occur near Opening Day as he had spent all of Spring Training stuck in neutral with no clear signs of improvement leaving many phans to wonder if surgery was the only clear option to a healthy knee.
Increasingly Utley continued to take batting practice but still cautious about the lateral movement on the knee. Every day and week seemed to bring new and improving reports on when he will return. From taking groundballs to running pre-game, and eventually taking part in simulated games earlier last week. One thing was always certain in the minds of every Phillies phan and that is that we all know Utley is bustin’ his butt everyday to get back as soon as possible.
Utley continued to inch towards his return in a big way on Saturday in Dunedin, Florida. Utley taking part in extended spring training went 5-7 with a pair of homers against the Blue Jays. Extended spring training games give Utley the opportunity to bat every inning and really get in some quality game time reps. Now granted this is no big league competition by any stretch but still a much needed step in Utley’s return to the lineup. There is still no timetable for his return to the club but definitely some positive signs for a mid to late May return.
"One day at a time," Chase said after his spring training game.
That is how everyone involved from Chase, to Rueben, to the phans have been taking it since day one. We are not use to being patient with Chase because he has always been a full throttle kind of a guy. Guaranteed his return will still be faster than any player could possibly return from patellar tendinitis. It may feel like it’s been ages since we’ve seen him on the field but all those worries and anxious feelings will be stripped away as soon as he trots back out to his rightful place at second base. There is no doubt Citizens Bank Park will be as loud as ever when that name finally gets announced in 2011.
The man is a machine, if not for doctors and executives holding him back there is no telling whether or not #26 would have just toughed this injury out like he has done in the past. Or maybe it’s a 32-year old weathered big league veteran finally finding a threshold of pain and learning how to take it day by day. Chase has never been one for taking it day by day but rather gritting his teeth and taking it like a man. This is not to belittle the man who is the man but rather to commend a man we all can aspire to be. A man who works hard at his craft, harder than anyone else.
This injury may have been a blessing in disguise for all Phillies phans. It gave reserves like Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr and Michael Martinez and chance to be seen and get in some big league reps that could prove to be very useful come playoff time. It also is promising to see how well the Phillies have played despite missing the best second baseman in all of baseball.
It is laughable to look back to all the so called “experts” predicting the demise of an aging Phillies team when questions surrounded whether or not Utley would even take the field in 2011. The cool kids pick was to take the Atlanta Braves to win the National League East due to a Phillies offense that just couldn’t produce without Utley and ex-right fielder Jayson Werth. The offense although quiet at times has still been able to produce. The Phillies currently have the 4th best offense in the National League. They rank 4th in the NL in batting average with .260, 4th in OBP, 6th in runs, 6th in hits and 6th in RBI’s.
With a National League best 22 wins the Phillies continue to win despite injuries to Chase, Chooch, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Jose Contreras. And not to mention the incredible hitless streak of Raul Ibanez. Rauuuul has proven that no matter how cold he is still capable of turning it back on. His turnaround and the Phillies hot start has to be attributed to skipper Charlie Manuel who has always been loyal to his players no matter the situation and it always proves to be a key ingredient to this team’s success. Players have to be able to respect their skipper in order for them to give every ounce of themselves on that field and that is exactly what this team does. The Phillies set a franchise record for wins in April with 18, not a bad start without arguably their best hitter out of the lineup.
With Joe Blanton returning tonight vs. the Fish in Florida it is likely that young right Vance Worley will be sent back down to Lehigh despite his impressive starts filling in for Big Joe. The other big roster questions will be what to do when Utley is cleared to return and also what to do once Domonic Brown is ready, which Amaro stated that his rehab assignment could be roughly three weeks. There is no decision to how soon Brown will return to the bigs.
So who gets optioned to Lehigh once Utley returns? Pete Orr has definitely seemed to establish himself as a legitimate fill-in guy and solid bench player. Valdez solidified his role on the team in 2010 and has covered most of the Chase Utley replacement duties in 2011. Orr has seen a significant amount of AB’s more than Martinez with 41 to Martinez’s 19. If the Phillies option Rule-5 pick Martinez they may lose him but the Phillies may make that move over sending Orr down. Orr has developed a strangely unique report with Twitter followers and Phillie phans alike. So much so there is an entire Twitter account dedicated to Pete Orr facts. You can stay up to date on all that is Orr, just follow on Twitter @PeteOrrFacts. That is only if your weirdly obsessed with the man they call Pete, not mentioning any names.
There are a lot of roster questions to be answered in the next few weeks but the biggest unanswered question of the year may finally be solved with the return of Chase Utley. After a long wait and an anticipated return it will feel great to have #26 back in the heart of the lineup. It won’t be long till we can hear the echoes of Harry saying “Chase Utley, you are the man!”