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Waiting for Utley: Maybe it is that simple

One of these days, I'm going to enroll in grad school and study pyschology or sociology and write my thesis on the phenomenon that is the city of Philadelphia's massive man crush on Chase Utley. Don't get me wrong. I have a great appreciation for the type of player that Utley is. You need only look to the diving play he made yesterday afternoon, or his slide tackle of Hanley Ramirez earlier in the week, to see some reasons why it is fun to watch him play baseball.

But it is still amazing to me how a sporting public that is considered among the toughest in the country is so quick to ignore the fact that Utley, like 99 percent of baseball players, will sometimes drop into a slump.

When Ryan Howard doesn't hit, it is because he swings at bad pitches out of the zone.

When Jimmy Rollins doesn't hit, it is because he is impatient at the plate.

When Jayson Werth doesn't hit, it is because he is swinging for a new contract.

But when Utley doesn't hit, he must be hurt.

I mention all of this because right now, the Phillies might be a No. 3 hitter away from getting back into an offensive groove.

The player hitting behind him in the line-up, Mr. Howard, has 13 hits, six of them for extra bases, in 43 at-bats over 11 games in June.

The player hitting in front of him, Placido Polanco, has 13 hits in 33 at-bats in June.

Utley, meanwhile, has six hits in 38 at-bats in June, with only two of them going for extra bases.

Since May 16 in Milwaukee, Utley has played 24 games, hitting 14-for-85 (.165) with four extra base hits, one of them a home run, four RBI, 11 walks and 10 strikeouts.

There is a school of thought that the Phillies' line-up goes as Jimmy Rollins go. But I think history will show that Utley is of equal importance, and given the fact that Rollins has spent much of the last three-plus weeks hurt, and Utley has spent much of the three-plus weeks slumping, maybe there really is no further explanation needed for the Phillies' offensive woes.

The only way that can be construed as bad news is if Utley really is hurt, which has been the theory du jour every time he has slumped over the past three years. In 2008, he really was hurt. Last season, he was banged up with a foot injury, although I don't think he was nearly as limited as he was in 2008.

This year, however, there have been no indications that he isn't healthy.

The fact is, Utley has gone through slumps like this before. This one is just magnified because it has happened early in the season, and thus has had a bigger impact on his overall numbers (he is hitting .256 at the moment), and because Rollins is out.

In his last 31 games of last season, Utley hit .193 with eight extra base hits, two of them home runs.

In his last 31 games this season, Utley is hitting .225 with eight extra base hits, two of them home runs.

The difference between Utley's slump this year and his slumps in 2008 and 2009, when he might have been hampered by physical problems, is that he is making much better contact.  In 111 at-bats over the last 31 games, he has struck out just 15 times, an average of once every 7.4 at-bats. In the last 31 games of last season, he struck out 21 times in 114 at-bats, an average of one every 5.4 at-bats.

Over the last five months of 2008, when he battled hip problems that eventually led to surgery, Utley averaged a strikeout every 5.6 at-bats.

In 2008 and 2009, there was at least a tacit acknowledgment by the Phillies that Utley's hip and foot were affecting his performance. This year, I've heard nothing about potential injuries greater than the day-to-day soreness that will plague anybody who plays as much as he does (and, for that matter, most ballplayers do). And the fact that he has still made decent contact suggests to me that his current funk is nothing more than a normal dip in production combined with an extra helping of bad luck.

The good news is that Utley has been known to snap out of his slumps with a vengeance, and that there doesn't appear to be a reason why his production won't return to equillibrium, meaning he just might spend the second half of the season on a ridiculous tear.

The bad news, of course, is that until he does, the Phillies are a good bet to continue to struggle to score runs.