CLEARWATER, Fla. - It may not look that way in the morning box score, but Chase Utley considered Tuesday night's exercise at Bright House Field another step in the right direction on his rickety knees.
Playing in his first minor-league rehab game for the single-A Clearwater Threshers, Utley went hitless in five at-bats with three strikeouts and a foul-out against the Tampa Yankees.
He was the designated hitter in Clearwater's 4-3, 10-inning loss, and when he swung and missed at an off-speed pitch from Tampa's Rigoberto Arrebato in the bottom of the ninth inning for his third straight strikeout, the sparse crowd taking advantage of dollar-dog-and-beer night booed the Philadelphia icon.
They had cheered him earlier in the evening, with one female fan even proposing marriage before his second at-bat, which was his most productive of the evening. He lined out to left field against former Lenape High School righthander Sean Black in the fourth inning, one pitch after hitting a ball down the right-field line that was just foul.
He looked at six pitches and was called out on strikes in his third at-bat, against lefty Aaron Dott in the sixth inning. Dott struck out Utley again to end the seventh inning.
Utley laughed and smiled when he was asked about the boos.
"I guess they didn't appreciate the strikeout, but it's a work in progress," he said. "I'm excited to be out there. I'm working hard trying to get back on the field, and we'll see how it goes."
A hitless start in which he put the ball in play only one time probably was not the result he was looking for, but the fact it was a pain-free experience was encouraging.
"It is what it is," he said. "It was day one. It was just good to be out there playing at night, which is a change at times. So it will be fun to continue this."
Utley said that he will be the Threshers' DH again Wednesday against Tampa and that "hopefully soon" he'll also be able to play second base.
Before Tuesday's game, Utley took grounders with his Clearwater teammates, alternating at second base with Albert Cartwright. After taking batting practice, however, Utley did not go into the field for extra work. Instead, he had a long conversation with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
"I could have taken some more ground balls, but the one thing I've learned over this whole process is I can't overdo it," he said. "If I overdo it, that's when it gets most uncomfortable. The last week or so have been very positive. Could I get out there [Wednesday]? Possibly, but I think it's better to be safe than sorry at this point and really get a good feel for my body. Right now, it's responding well."
Utley, 33, and trying to begin his 10th big-league season, said he has zero knee pain when he hits and runs, the only tools required of a designated hitter. That does not mean he's in a hurry to become an American Leaguer.
"That definitely has not crossed my mind, especially not at this point," Utley said. "The past three or four weeks have been very positive in just taking ground balls and being out on the field and on my feet on a daily basis. That's been a good thing. I've been able to take more ground balls, picked up the intensity, and so far so good."
The whole point of Tuesday's exercise is to get Utley back playing for the Phillies. After he finished meeting with a small media contingent at Bright House Field, Utley walked into an adjoining room where his wife, Jen, and infant son, Benjamin, were talking to Amaro. A nearby television screen was showing the Phillies game against the Twins in Minnesota.
More ground in the standings was lost and if the Phillies fall too far behind, the returns of Utley, Ryan Howard, and Roy Halladay could become irrelevant.
"We have some scrappers on that team," Utley said. "I know with Ryan and Roy and I out, it's a little bit more difficult, but we have guys who can do a good job."
In the meantime, Utley is working his way back to Philadelphia. The first step did not look so good in the box score, but it felt good on his knees.