CLEARWATER, Fla. - It is not yet known when Chase Utley will play the field in a game for the first time this spring, but Friday afternoon signified progress for the Phillies' veteran second baseman.
After missing the first 10 games of the Phillies' Grapefruit League schedule, Utley played as the designated hitter in the Phillies' 2-1 win against the Tampa Bay Rays. The right ankle that has limited him "feels pretty good," he said after his spring debut.
"Still making a little progress on it," he said. "It's not perfect yet, but we're moving in the right direction."
Utley will meet with Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg to formulate a plan moving forward. The 36-year-old may serve as the designated hitter for at least another spring game but said he would "like to play the field soon." He is not in the lineup for Saturday afternoon's game against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.
The latter of Utley's Friday at-bats tested his ankle while running down the first baseline. Working on a 1-0 count, he lined Chris Archer's 95-m.p.h. fastball to right-center field for a single. Outfield prospect Aaron Altherr pinch-ran for Utley at first and scored on the next pitch when Ryan Howard sent it over the right-field fence for the first baseman's first home run of the spring.
A nine-pitch battle in Utley's first at-bat against Archer, the Rays' 26-year-old righthander, ended in a swinging strikeout.
"It felt good to get out there in front of the crowd, get some at-bats off an opposing pitcher," Utley said. "It was nice."
"I thought Chase looked great," Sandberg said. "I thought he laid off some pitches. His swing was good, with the base hit, and [he] ran well. That was going to be it for today, with just the two at-bats, so we'll expand from there."
Utley sprained his ankle in January while fielding ground balls during an offseason workout in the San Francisco area. He reported consistent improvement throughout the first couple weeks of spring training, though with his ankle still visibly swollen he limited himself in baserunning drills early in full-squad workouts.
Game action in the field should serve as more of a test. Utley is coming off an uneven 2014 campaign that was highlighted by his sixth trip to the All-Star Game. Sandberg has stated his intention to give Utley more days off this season.
"He had a great at-bat. His first at-bat, even though he struck out, he put some good passes on it," Howard said. "Then the second [at-bat] he was able to square one up, put one in the gap. He had two good at-bats today."
Nineteen game days separate the Phillies and their flight back to Philadelphia to ready for the April 6 season opener against the Boston Red Sox. That should leave plenty of opportunities for Utley to garner enough at-bats to fine-tune his timing at the plate.
"We wanted to get him out there on the field in these two at-bats [and] see how things went," Sandberg said. "I was glad to see the base hit so [he was] able to run the bases because that's part of the test. So that was good. I'll have a conversation with him, and we'll come up with a plan [for] from here on out."