Utley homers, fields well in final rehab game
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- He’s ready. At least, he sure looks ready.
Chase Utley had two hits, smoked the ball three times, smashed a long home run to right-center, fielded two challenging chances flawlessly and sure looked ready to return to the major leagues.
Utley, who’s been rehabbing his chronic sore knees since early in spring training, made it through the final step of his rehab Tuesday night in a one-game stint with the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, a 10-3 win over the Rochester Red Wings at Coca-Cola Park.
Still nothing official, but Utley is expected to be activated by the Phillies in time to play against the Pirates Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park.
“I’m extremely anxious to get back,” Utley said after the game. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve been with my teammates.”
Utley said his knees feel good. He said he’s not limited offensively, defensively or running the bases, and when asked, he couldn’t come up with a reason he wouldn’t be able to return to major-league baseball immediately.
“So far, so good,” he said. “It felt pretty good out there. ... I’m feeling pretty confident out there. I felt a little bit more comfortable out there on the field and in the batter’s box and hopefully I’ll move forward from here.”
Utley stopped short of saying he expects to be activated for Wednesday’s game, saying he has to talk to general manager Ruben Amaro first.
“I’ll talk to Ruben tonight and tell him how I feel and go from there,” he said. “Right now I feel good. Everything so far has been pretty good.”
Utley wouldn’t say it. But it’s clear that there’s nothing else he can get out of rehabbing. He belongs with the Phillies.
“He looks ready to me,” said IronPigs pitcher Scott Elarton, who won 17 games with the Astros in 2000. “I don’t know how anybody could be more ready.”
Utley, a five-time All-Star, hasn’t played a full healthy season since 2009, when he hit .282 with 31 homers.
In nine major-league seasons, he’s hitting .290 -- fifth-highest in baseball history by a second baseman with 175 or more home runs -- but his average dropped each year from 2007 through 2011 (.332, .292, .282, .275, .259).
Utley said he feels better now than he has in several years, finally able to get his legs into his swing and drive the ball like he did during his All-Star seasons.
“I think I’m a little bit more confident in the things that I’m doing and what’s working for me,” he said. “I didn’t have a whole lot of leg strength [last year], and for me that’s the bottom line -- trying to keep my legs strong without irritating them, and right now we’re moving forward.
“I feel like I can get them stronger over the next few months and make some improvement there.”
On Tuesday night, Utley gave the sold-out crowd of 10,100 everything they wanted to see.
“There was a lot of buzz around the ballpark tonight, having him here with us,” Elarton said. “I think half the people in the stadium were wearing Utley shirts. It was pretty cool. Having him here kind of lifted everybody up, gave the whole team a boost.”
Utley, facing Australian righthander and career minor-leaguer Brendan Wise, got a good swing on a 2-1 breaking pitch in the first, slicing a line drive to fairly deep left field that Wilkin Ramirez tracked down, the first out in a five-run first inning.
Utley came up again in the second and lined a single to left center, but he didn’t get a chance to run the bases when the next two IronPigs were retired.
In the bottom of the fourth, Utley faced Rochester right-hander Esmerling Vasquez, who pitched in 141 games for the Diamondbacks from 2009 through 2011, and launched a 1-2 changeup deep over the right-center field wall.
After the homer, Utley returned to the IronPigs’ dugout where he was greeted with the silent treatment, an age-old baseball tradition. After about 15 seconds, he was mobbed by his new teammates after his first Triple A home run in eight years.
“He left it up a little bit,” Utley said later. “It was nice to see some different pitching tonight. The game is a little faster at this level [than at Clearwater]. That’s kind of what I anticipated, and I’m glad I got to play here.”
Utley struck out his last two at-bats, the first time looking at a 2-2 breaking pitch from Caleb Thielbar that was a foot inside, the second time swinging at a 3-2 fastball from righty Casey Fien.
Utley said he was just as encouraged by the challenges he faced defensively as his good swings at the plate.
On the very first play of the game, he made a terrific relay throw from shallow right field and nearly pegged out Pedro Florimon on what turned out to be a triple.
Utley closed out the top of the fifth with a slick play, fielding a slow bouncer behind the mound and twisting and firing to first just in time to retire one-time Twins phenom Danny Valencia -- third in the 2010 A.L. Rookie-of-the-Year voting.
He also ended the sixth with a fine play, charging to his left to snag a nubber between the mound and first and flipping across his body to nab Ramirez at first.
“I didn’t get too many [defensive] opportunities down in Clearwater,” he said. “Tonight, [those] were two of the more difficult plays that I’ve had so far. I felt comfortable and confident making those plays.”
Next stop, Citizens Bank Park.
“It’s all about my comfort level,” he said. “And knowing my knee isn’t going to hurt.”E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com