In his last 30 games of last season, the guy playing second base for the Phillies looked like the Chase Utley you remember. He hit .313, posted an on-base percentage of .426, and hit five home runs in 112 at-bats.

The Phillies went 23-7 and posted a runaway victory in an NL East race that had been neck-and-neck for most of the season.

Life was good.

But in the 13 games that preceded that monthlong stretch, Utley was anything but an All-Star. Fresh off a 6 1/2-week stint on the disabled list, he hit .184 (9-for-49), posted an on-base percentage of .322, and tallied just two extra-base hits (none of them home runs).

That's important to remember, because heading into tonight's game against the Cubs, Utley has made 13 starts since returning from a 7 1/2-week stint on the DL. And in those 13 starts, he has hit .231 (12-for-52), posted a .344 on-base percentage, and tallied three extra-base hits (one of them a home run).

Before Charlie Manuel gave him a day off in yesterday's series finale against the Dodgers, Utley had played in five straight games, going 6-for-21 with a triple and three walks.

"He's getting better," Manuel said. "I figured he would get better. I figured as far as his timing and things like that, that might be a concern. He might need some games and some at-bats at the major league level. Big-league pitching, the command and everything, is sharper than in Clearwater and extended spring. The ball moves faster. It's timing. It's getting back used to it."

The manager isn't ready to say that his star second baseman is completely in synch. But, Manuel said, "He's close."

The biggest concern isn't Utley's performance. It is keeping his knee healthy. Yesterday was his fourth day off since returning to the team. He had played in five straight games, his longest extended action to date. The Phillies are determined to give Utley regular breathers to avoid aggravating the chondromalacia, patellar tendinitis and bone bruising that caused him to miss most of the first 2 months of the season.

"He isn't ever going to say he doesn't want to play," Manuel said. "I don't expect that of him. I can tell by the way he acts when I look at him. How about that? I think I'm that good. I think I know him. I think I know my players and I think I know a lot about people. Because I study 'em. I sit and watch them. I watch you sometimes, probably."

Rollins ready

If everything goes according to Manuel's plan, Jimmy Rollins will be back in the Phillies lineup for today's series-opener against the Cubs. The shortstop has not started a game since fouling a pitch off his knee against the Pirates on Saturday, which caused considerable swelling and bone bruising in the knee. Rollins pinch-hit Tuesday night against the Dodgers and took ground balls yesterday.

"He can pinch-hit and hopefully he'll be in the game tomorrow," Manuel said before last night's game.

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