CLEARWATER, Fla. - Your perspective on the news that broke yesterday could depend on a number of variables, from the level of cynicism that pumps through your veins to the level of value you place on a certain All-Star second baseman.
In the coming months, the Phillies will either prove to have been correct in their public proclamation of optimism with regards to Chase Utley's balky right knee, or they will prove to have suffered their first notable injury of the 2011 season less than 2 weeks into spring training.
The only thing anybody knows for sure is what an MRI revealed on Saturday: that Utley, who yesterday was out of the lineup for the Phillies' third straight spring training game, is suffering from patellar tendinitis in his right knee. Utley, reticent with regards to his health in previous days, opened up to reporters yesterday.
Utley said the pain in his knee is nothing new. He has played through it in the past, and he thinks he would be able to do so right now.
"It's probably been here and there for a while now," Utley said. "There's no rhyme or reason to why it starts to flare up on me, but it is part of being an everyday player . . . I try to look at the big picture. I think we have hopefully 200 more games to play this year. I'd rather participate in the majority of them later on."
The Phillies agree with that assessment.
"Rather than really push him early here, we're going to kind of take it easy on him so there aren't residual effects during the course of the year," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "If he continues to aggravate it, it could get more painful."
Patellar tendinitis is not uncommon among professional athletes. Last season, American League batting champ Josh Hamilton battled the same condition in the same knee while hitting .359 with 32 home runs and a 1.044 OPS. The lefthanded-hitting Rangers slugger only missed two games due to the tendinitis, but received cortisone injections in May and August. New Knicks star Carmelo Anthony has averaged 25.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game despite suffering from patellar tendinitis this season.
On the other hand, several baseball players have seen their seasons cut short and their productivity drop while battling the condition. Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge had surgery in November 2009 to alleviate what had been described as chronic patellar tendinitis in both of his knees. In the first 3 months of that season, Inge had hit .275 with 18 home runs. But after July 1, when the pain in his knees worsened, he hit .189 with 99 strikeouts.
Last season, Athletics outfielder Ryan Sweeney was hitting .320 with a .363 on-base percentage in mid-June, but hit just .226 with a .290 on-base percentage over the next month. The lefty ended up having season-ending surgery to alleviate patellar tendinitis in his right knee.
Utley said yesterday that surgery has not even been discussed as an option. In fact, Utley said, he has played through worse pain during his career. If the Phillies were in the middle of the regular season instead of at the beginning of the Grapefruit League slate, he said he would be in the lineup.
"I hope it's just a minor blip," Utley said. "I think we have the right people checking it out. I think the work ethic is going to be there in terms of trying to improve it. So in that aspect I think it's all good."
Utley hit .275 with a .445 slugging percentage last season, the third straight year in which both numbers declined. But the 32-year-old perennial All-Star said the pain does not hamper him at the plate. Rather, it affects him when he makes sharp movements, such as the ones that occur while playing in the field and running the bases.
"It comes and goes," said Utley, who missed a month-and-a-half after thumb surgery last July and finished the season with career lows in home runs (16), OPS (.832), RBI (65) and plate appearances (511). "Right now it's not going as fast as I wish that it would. But I think at this point it is better to be safe than sorry. I'd rather miss some games down here than miss some games during the season."
Charlie Manuel, whose optimism about injuries is usually comparable to that of Monty Python's black knight, downplayed his concern about Utley. There is no telling when Utley, who labeled himself day-to-day, might make his Grapefruit League debut.
"I've had tendinitis in my shoulder, I've had tendinitis in my knees, I've had arthritis in my knees and things like that," the manager said. "I think that all that can be taken care of. I'm concerned about it, of course. But at the same time, I feel just like I did [Saturday] before I knew anything [about the MRI]. It'll take a few days for him to get well, but he will, and we'll have plenty of time to get him ready for the start of the season."
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