What passes for parity in the NFL goes by another term in baseball: mediocrity. A little past the quarter-pole in Major League Baseball's season, and 18 teams are within four games of .500. Two have won more than 60 percent of their games (Cleveland and Philadelphia). Two have lost more than 60 percent (Minnesota and Houston). Everyone else remains in a muddled, muddied middle.
As always, wheat and chaff will go their separate ways, and in the middle of it all will be the unlikeliest of protagonists. Maybe Scott Sheridan. Or Jamie Reed. Could be Jeff Porter. Perhaps Lonnie Soloff. Possibly Sean Cunningham.
If you've never heard of them, don't feel bad. Certified athletic trainers tend to get as much press as someone selling soft pretzels. Now, the pretzel guy doesn't make or break pennant races. Sheridan (Phillies), Reed (Rangers), Porter (Braves), Soloff (Indians) and Cunningham (Marlins) already have dealt with significant injuries, the sort that could derail a team if not properly addressed.
Executives from three contending teams this week, when asked the biggest threat to their team, cited neither an opponent nor an on-field weakness. "Injuries," they said in triplicate, presumably rapping their hand on an oak desk simultaneously.
Injuries happen to all but the luckiest teams, and those who survive the season with minimal disabled-list usage often find themselves in a race despite inferior talent. Those vexed can suffer tens of millions in lost production, not to mention a shot at the postseason.
So strength-and-conditioning coaches strive to keep players' fitness levels appropriate, and players themselves try their best to avoid calamity, and if misfortune intervenes, trainers work overtime to help their best and brightest return. And in the case of …
1. Chase Utley the return can't come soon enough. After sitting out seven weeks with tendinitis in his right knee, Utley will bat second for Philadelphia on Monday. No injury carried as much intrigue this spring as Utley's, and for a pair of good reasons: He helps define his ballclub, and he refused to define his injury.
If Jimmy Rollins(notes) is the Phillies' id and Ryan Howard(notes) their ego, Utley is the super-ego, the balancing force that ties together the Philadelphia Way. Before Roy Halladay(notes) arrived to set inconceivable standards of work ethic there was Utley, moving about the field in such a practical manner it bordered on mechanized. That, all the new Phillies soon learned, was him: all substance, no style, reinforced by the substance (L.A. Looks) in his hair that shows a distinct lack of style.
Accordingly, Utley barely addressed his injury: the extent of it, the timetable, the recovery process. Even as he returned from a successful nine-game rehab stint with Class-A Clearwater, Utley played mum. His bat talks better than he does anyway.
The Phillies need it, too. They rank last in their division in runs scored, 12th in the National League and 23rd in baseball. Though as much as they've pined for Utley …
2. Texas misses Josh Hamilton(notes) even more. In the 11 games Hamilton played to start the season, the Rangers won nine and scored 5.8 runs per game. Since he hit the DL with a broken arm suffered on an ill-advised headfirst slide on an ill-conceived dash toward home plate, the Rangers are 15-21 and plating 3.9 a game.
On his rehab assignment, Hamilton hit a pair of home runs and showed himself plenty able. The Rangers will kid glove him, naturally, lest they touch him the wrong way and send him to the DL again. As great as Hamilton is, he's equally fragile.
Still, he will redefine the Rangers' lineup immediately upon his arrival Monday against Chicago. Michael Young(notes) filled the No. 3 hole ably over the first 25 games of his absence, and Ian Kinsler(notes) – the Rangers' leadoff hitter – slid to the slot for the last 11. Between Hamilton …
3. And Nelson Cruz, who's also back Monday, the Rangers load a lineup that, over the last two weeks, has featured David Murphy(notes), Craig Gentry(notes), Mitch Moreland(notes), Endy Chavez(notes) and Julio Borbon(notes) filling the outfield.
Cruz, actually, is among the closest facsimiles to Hamilton – perhaps second only to Matt Kemp(notes) – in terms of a size-and-athleticism package. At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Cruz roams the outfield like a safety, steals bases and hits for prodigious power.
He also spends too much time on the DL with minor injuries. This year it was a pulled quadriceps. Last year, hamstring injuries – right, left, left – sent him to the DL three times. The year before, a sprained ankle prompted a DL stint.
Five times in just over two years earns a player a sort of reputation, and …
4. Jason Heyward(notes) is on his way to getting one himself. Atlanta placed Heyward on the DL with a sore right shoulder Sunday night. The injury, nagging the 21-year-old since late in the spring, worsened Friday and necessitated at least two weeks of rest, possibly more.
A brutal May, during which he's gone 4 for 41, dropped Heyward's season line to .214/.317/.407. More important, it's the second consecutive season in which an injury bothered Heyward for an extended period, only for him to play through it and struggle before spending time sidelined. There was the pesky left thumb. And the balky right knee. All Heyward needs is a bum left foot, and he'll have taken care of all four limbs – almost from top to bottom.
Anytime a young player on the cusp of stardom suffers through a rash of injuries, it's hard to watch. Injuries, more than anything in sports, leave casualties. Heyward has only been able to drink legally since last August, so he's got time to grow out of the curse. For others …
5. It's just part of life, one that Grady Sizemore learned to live long ago. His recovery from microfracture knee surgery started off so well. In his first 18 games back, he popped six home runs and joined a Cleveland team already playing better than any.
Then he slid hard into second, and his body did what it does: break a little. A bruised right knee – his microfracture came on the left – sent him to the DL on May 16, and while the Indians hope to have him back by next Monday, they must remember: This is Grady Sizemore.
Exactly how the Indians survive without Sizemore and Hafner could give the best indication yet of how real they are. We know, after all, that …
Bilateral leg weakness – essentially a pair of legs that feel like noodles – hit Mauer more than a month ago, and only now is he preparing to return to the field. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he expects Mauer to play in an extended spring-training game sometime this week. If everything goes right, including Mauer's rehab assignment, he could return around mid-June.
By then, the Twins could be DOA. They might be already. They're a staggering 14 ½ games behind Cleveland. Their run differential is minus-86 – more than twice as bad as the next worst in the American League. One Twins player summed up their existence recently: "I'm miserable." Which means he now knows how …
7. David Wright feels every day he has to slip on a New York Mets uniform. Actually, the Mets were looking like a halfway-decent team before doctors diagnosed Wright with a stress fracture in his back. A fully healthy Jose Reyes(notes) is playing like an All-Star just in time for free agency. Carlos Beltran(notes) is hitting. Before Sunday, the Mets' bullpen even sported a sub-3.00 ERA.
The uncertainty of Wright's injury wrecks those good feelings. He's got a doctor's appointment in Los Angeles and until then, he needs to … rest. And it might feel better, but no one is really sure. So he could come back next week. He could come back next month. He could come back next year. The extent of the injury is so vague that it's just a guessing game.
What's evident: The back hurt him badly since he injured it diving for a ball at third base April 19. Wright is batting .205 since then, his slugging percentage under .400, his fearsome bat rendered impotent by something that went undiagnosed for nearly a month. On the day he found out about the injury, Wright was getting ready to face …
8. Josh Johnson(notes), to that point the toughest pitcher in baseball. While Johnson went out and threw five innings of one-run ball that night, he knew something was wrong. Like so many players, Johnson is a habitual injury hider. His shoulder had bugged him all year, and only after a bullpen session Thursday did he tell management about it.
Such stubbornness isn't just immature, it's stupid. Johnson owns one of the best arms in the game. It's one thing to pitch through bumps and bruises and dings; it's another to practically beg the most fragile part of a pitcher's arm, the shoulder, to blow out.
As a 23-year-old, Johnson underwent Tommy John surgery, an elbow procedure. He returned even better. Shoulder problems are altogether different, and the Marlins and Johnson can only hope a few weeks of rest do right by his arm. Not only did Florida invest $39 million in Johnson last year to be its ace and open its new ballpark next season, but also the Marlins suddenly are contenders in the NL East, riding an electric bullpen and a power-hitting young trio – Logan Morrison(notes), Gaby Sanchez(notes) and Mike Stanton(notes) – to the third-best record in the league. They want to see him back, a sentiment the Chicago Cubs share with …
9. Marlon Byrd for entirely different reasons. Already the weekend had gone poorly enough for the Cubs, who needed to scratch Matt Garza(notes) from his start. Then an Alfredo Aceves(notes) fastball bored inside on Byrd and struck him directly on the left cheekbone. Byrd writhed in pain with good reason: He suffered facial fractures and hit the DL with Chicago trying to figure out the extent of the injuries.
Whatever they are, Byrd could miss a while. The concussive elements of taking a 92-mph pitch to the dome, the healing time for the small bones in the face and the psychological hurdles that accompany any player with such a traumatic injury will all be factors. Byrd may be a bad mamma jamma – seriously, a ball directly to the face, and not only did he never pass out, but also he didn't even want to sit down – but he's also human, and he'll endure …
10. Some of the same pratfalls that sidelined Chase Utley. He wanted to hurt back. He wanted to be in the lineup opening day. He wanted to push himself, to better himself, to do everything he learned as an athlete.
Instead, he recognized patience heals as much as anything. The Phillies could use him, especially considering their best hitters have been Shane Victorino(notes) (now on the DL) and Placido Polanco(notes). Domonic Brown's(notes) return this week should help, though manager Charlie Manuel's apparent platoon reeks of unnecessary over-management, and Ryan Howard thrived in June last season and tends to heat up alongside the weather.
Which leaves Utley as the final cog, one that will take its first hacks Monday against Cincinnati starter Bronson Arroyo(notes). Utley is 4 for 9 with a home run off Arroyo. He's back at home, where Phillies fans may cause Citizens Bank Park to spontaneously combust with their applause for him. Most important: He's in the lineup, aiming to give the Phillies the boost they need.
Scott Sheridan will be grinning. The most mysterious injury of the spring – one scout, relaying gossip back then, said Utley's knee "is like mashed potatoes" – is gone, and he may have saved the Phillies millions of dollars in production.
And, of course, their season.