Four thousand, three-hundred and twenty-four times Chase Utley had taken that walk from the on-deck circle to home plate. Never before had he done it like this.
After doing his best to tune out a lengthy standing ovation from a home crowd that had waited 46 games for his arrival, Utley dug into the batter's box, took a fastball for a ball, then made solid contact on 1-0 sinker. The at-bat, like four others he would take last night, ended in an out.
But after nearly 3 months of pain-staking rehabilitation, his mere presence on a baseball field was accomplishment enough.
"I've put in a lot of hard work over the past few months to get to this point," said Utley, who went 0-for-5 with a strikeout in his first game of the season. "I'm pretty satisfied with where we are at. Obviously, I would have liked to be in there a little bit sooner, but it is what it is. I was just happy to be out there."
When Utley first went on the disabled list in late March, there was some doubt about whether he would be out there at all this season. His right knee was afflicted with a variety of ailments – chondromalacia, patellar tendinitis and bone bruising, to be specific – that made it difficult for him to do even the most basic of athletic movements. In recent weeks, as his return grew more and more likely, the fan base grew more and more restless with a lineup that entered last night averaging just 3.83 runs per game, fifth-fewest in the National League. Even if his return did not produce much in the way of personal results, there was a definite energy at Citizens Bank Park that had been lacking.
"It's great to have him," said Raul Ibanez, who went 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI. "He's a huge part of our team. We've definitely been missing him. It's great to have him back."
Quantifying Utley's impact on the lineup is a difficult endeavor. During the 43-game stretch he spent on the disabled list last season, the Phillies averaged 4.6 runs per game and went 26-17 (.605). In the 45 games they played after his return, they averaged 4.9 runs per game and went 31-14 (.689). But Utley was not the only variable. During his absence, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino also missed time. After his return, Jimmy Rollins missed a stretch.
Clearly, the Phillies are a better team with Utley. Two of their biggest struggles have been their power production and their patience at the plate. Entering yesterday, the Phillies were averaging only 3.74 pitches per plate appearance, the third fewest in the National League. Utley has averaged 3.98 in his career, including 3.99 last season. His two primary replacements this year, Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr, combined to average 3.46 in his absence. After returning from the DL last season, Utley hit .273 with a .395 on-base percentage, .410 slugging percentage and five home runscq. Entering yesterday, Valdez was hitting .234/.261/.290 in 40 games and Orr, since demoted to Triple A Lehigh Valley, was hitting .230/.299/.279 in 26 gamescq. Neither had hit a home run.
Utley had not played in a major league game since the postseason. He had seen only 2 weeks of live pitching, first in a handful of extended spring-training games, then in nine rehab starts for Class A Clearwater. He logged 36 plate appearances in those nine rehab starts, going 9-for-32 with two doubles, one home run, six strikeouts, three walks and one hit-by-pitch.
Even before Utley's knee injury, his contact and power numbers had declined. In 2007, he hit .332 with a .566 slugging percentage. In 2008, he hit .292 with a .535 slugging percentage. In 2009, he hit .282 with a .508 slugging percentage. Last year, he hit .275 with a .445 slugging percentage. Offense has declined throughout the sport during that time, and, at 32 years old, Utley is hardly ancient. Charlie Manuel said he still thinks Utley is a pre-eminent offensive player.
"If he's not right now, I think that he definitely can," Manuel said. "I don't see where he's lost anything. Basically, to me, the last couple years, he's been hurt a lot. The fact that he missed time and everything has maybe played a role in his batting average. But the way I look at it, he's still a .300 hitter."
Ruben Amaro said yesterday he does not think the Phillies can afford to add payroll, which means he could need to deal salary to facilitate a trade for a hitter.
Limiting his options is the uncertain health of veteran righthander Joe Blanton, whose $8.5 million salary both this year and next could be one they look to unload. Amaro said yesterday that Blanton is headed for an appointment with renowned elbow surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Alabama. An MRI on Blanton's elbow did not reveal any structural damage, but he is not expected to throw for the next 2 to 3 weeks, so he won't have much chance to re-establish trade value.