Can Chase Utley be honest? It is really that simple. Can Utley tell Charlie Manuel the truth about the status of his deteriorating right knee, so that Manuel can properly manage the injury, so that come October Utley is still playing, presumably at a high level?
Can Utley go against everything in his athletic makeup and relay information to Manuel that likely would lead to his sitting out a game or two? Now that he is back after missing the first 46 games of the season, can Utley really take himself out of any more games?
From everything the Phillies are saying about Utley's return - he hit second in a lineup that awakened for the first time in nearly a month, clubbing the Cincinnati Reds, 10-3 - it will be incumbent on Utley to give Manuel a daily, accurate accounting of how his knee is feeling. When he needs to take a night off, Utley just needs to say so and Manuel will grant it, no problem.
The Phillies say Utley can and will do that, because, you know, he respects Manuel and respects the organization and respects his teammates. He would never lie about whether he is in pain. He would never try to play through an injury when a sane person would sit.
Except that Utley did just that throughout the 2008 season, when his numbers plummeted and a hip injury got so severe that it required Utley to have surgery after the Phillies won the World bleeping Series.
So there is precedent for Utley manipulating the truth when it comes to the health of his body. There is no reason to think he will not do it again, other than the Phillies and Utley promising he would not.
"I think I have a very good communication with Chase," Manuel said. "I think we were definitely on the same page. The biggest thing to me is I want to make sure Chase is with us the whole rest of the season and that he has a big year. That's the most important thing to Chase and our organization."
Said Utley: "I think at this point I realize what I need to do to stay on top of this. Some days that might be cutting stuff short. Some days I'll be able to go full-out. It's just kind of still a learning process, but I think we have a good way of handling it."
Utley also said he and Manuel will talk every day to monitor the situation "at the beginning for sure . . . but I definitely want to be out there."
And there was this: "I think I know my body better than anybody else, and I know what I can deal with, and I know what I can't deal with."
As in, back off.
Manuel said he has a schedule in his desk of days when he would like to rest Utley, so Utley does not overwork the knee. Of course, Manuel refused to divulge the schedule and even admitted, "at the same time, that's not etched in stone."
"We can give and take," Manuel said.
If Utley tries to play through pain again, can you blame him? He is not blind. Like the rest of us, he was forced to watch the Phillies the last month, although at least Utley got to do so from Florida, where he spent 16 days on a rehab stint with single-A Clearwater, saving him the horror of having to watch from a front-row seat in the dugout.
The Phillies have been dreadful offensively and they needed Utley to come back in the worst way. He knew that. He also knows that they will continue to need his bat and his presence. Will Utley be honest enough with himself and with the club to strike the balance between wanting to help and wanting to help too much?
It is possible that this knee injury - a combination of patellar tendinitis, chondromalacia, and bone inflammation - scared Utley straight. If missing 46 games to start a season does not get your attention, almost nothing will.
Or it is possible that Utley agreed to keep Manuel in the loop so that he could get back to help his team.
"Like I said, I enjoy playing," Utley said. "I think I play the game the right way, and I don't see that changing a whole lot. But as far as preparation prior to the game and during the game, that's not going to change."
The Phillies, and their fans, certainly were happy to have Utley back last night. Utley got a series of standing ovations when he was announced as hitting second in Manuel's lineup and when he walked out to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
His first time at the plate, Utley smacked a Bronson Arroyo pitch to center field, and it was like everyone in Citizens Bank Park held his or her breath. A base hit would have been too perfect. Instead it was an out.
Nevertheless, Utley's presence, or Arroyo's bad pitches, energized the rest of the lineup, which erupted for seven runs in the third inning. When Utley walked up to the plate after Arroyo had been run, the crowd chanted, "Let's go, Utley." Incredibly, everyone else in the Phillies lineup, including Cole Hamels, already had a hit.
Utley struck out, but the crowd applauded anyway.
"I put in a lot of hard work over the past few months to get to this point, and I'm pretty satisfied where we're at," Utley said afterward. "Obviously, I would've liked to be in there a little earlier, but it is what it is. I was just happy to be out there."
Everyone was happy to see Utley back out there. How much they see of him in the next month or so will be predicated on how honest Utley is with Manuel about the condition of his knee.