COMMENTARY | Just who is this Chase Utley we've been watching in the first few weeks of the 2013 season? Is this really the guy who has been missing for most of the past three seasons, or is it a mirage?
Actually, those are very good questions.
If you follow the Philadelphia Phillies, you will be guardedly optimistic that this is the same Chase Cameron Utley of the Reggie Jackson-esque performance in the 2009 World Series, when he slugged a record-tying five home runs and overall was the best player on the field for those six games. You remember that guy, don't you?
And then 2010 happened.
Utley was 31, a four-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger Award winner. He was generally regarded as the best all-around second baseman in the game. Chase was entering what should have been the peak of his career, and the Phillies were taking aim at a three-peat for the National League pennant, something that hadn't been accomplished in 66 years.
They seemed well on their way to doing just that when on June 28, 2010, Utley went 1-for-3 in a 7-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. The next day, we found out Utley would be placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained thumb he had injured while sliding. Then, a few days later, we found out the sprained thumb would require surgery.
Utley wouldn't return until mid-August.
And he really hasn't been the same Chase Utley since, that is until the first weeks of this season.
Utley finished 2010 hitting .275 with 16 homers and 65 RBIs. He managed six homers and 28 RBIs after his return. In nine postseason games, he hit .212 with two extra-base hits and five RBIs. Baseball pundits figured the thumb merely caused an off year and he'd return to form in 2011.
But he didn't, and this time it involved something a lot more disconcerting than a sprained thumb.
We began hearing a lot about Utley's knee problems around the opening of spring training of 2011. At first, it was reported as a recurrence of patellar tendinitis in his right knee, a common joint ailment among athletes caused by irritation in the tendon connecting the kneecap and the shinbone. He was listed as day to day.
But the situation grew worse. About a month later, the Phillies' medical team revealed Utley also was suffering from chondromalacia patella, essentially a deterioration of the cartilage under the kneecap, and bone inflammation. The revelations not only raised concerns about his knees but also Utley's future in the game.
That "day-to-day" ailment wound up costing him the first 46 games of the 2011 season. When he came back, he would play the rest of the way. But, clearly, he wasn't playing like Chase Utley -- .259 will 11 homers and 44 RBIs during the season -- although he did perform well in five postseason games.
Before spring training of 2012, Utley developed the same problem under his left kneecap. More of the story spilled from the normally tight-lipped second baseman. His knee conditions had caused him a lot of pain, which Utley admittedly tried to play through, perhaps as far back as 2010 judging by his decreasing power and production.
Much was made over Utley's rehabilitation choices, primarily picking physical therapy over surgery. When he returned 77 games into the 2012 season, he was still a shadow of the old Utley -- .256, 11 homers, 45 RBIs. In talk radio critiques, the guy who had been the key to the Phillies attack since 2005 now had become the guy the Phillies could finally be rid of after the 2013 season.
Chase Utley is now 34 and in the final year of his Phillies contract. He entered spring training of 2013 saying his knees were fine, that a new therapy approach had made a huge difference. But judging from his previous two seasons, it was difficult to believe that was much more than wishful thinking.
The Phillies were cautious with him throughout much of the spring, but they have turned him loose since opening day. The way the Phillies' current roster is constructed, Utley must succeed if the Phils are to contend. Under close scrutiny, Chase has played all of the first 11 games and hit .286 with six extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. Perhaps more impressively, he's been running the bases with complete abandon and diving to make plays at second base with range he hasn't shown in four or five years.
What? This looks like the Chase Utley we once knew. How can this be for real? Whatever he's doing now that he wasn't doing last year, it appears Chase has found a way to manage his discomfort. Of course, how he holds up under the stress of an entire baseball season remains to be seen.
But this is no time to rain on his parade. The real Chase Utley appears to be back and for however long it lasts, it's certainly fun to watch again.
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime Phillies follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards. He covered the 1980 World Series, the first championship in Phillies history.
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