Utley's recovery is far ahead of schedule

Updated: February 20, 2009, 4:55 PM ET
Associated Press

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley rattled off a list of postseason memories without mentioning his defensive gem in the World Series clincher.

No surprise there. The three-time All-Star second baseman is one of the most unassuming star athletes in any sport.

Utley
Utley

Utley played a major role in helping the Philadelphia Phillies capture their first World Series title since 1980 and only the second in franchise history. He'd rather talk about his teammates than any of his accomplishments.

Favorite moment?

"It's a blur," Utley said Thursday. "I'd have to say the last pitch."

Brad Lidge threw a nasty slider past Tampa Bay's Eric Hinske, setting off a wild celebration in a city that hadn't celebrated a major sports championship in 25 years.

Anything else stand out?

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Utley fondly recalled Shane Victorino's grand slam off CC Sabathia in the division series against Milwaukee, Pat Burrell's two home runs in the clincher against the Brewers and Cole Hamels' superb pitching performances throughout October.

"There's so many," he said, knowing reporters wanted him to discuss one specific play.

"Oh, you want me to talk about," Utley said, stopping short of finishing his thought. "I tend to remember other people's plays before I remember mine."

The Rays and Phillies were tied at 3 with two outs in the top of the seventh in that wacky Game 5 that was delayed 46 hours by rain. Jason Bartlett was on second base when Akinori Iwamura hit a chopper up the middle off reliever J.C. Romero.

Utley went far to his right to field the ball, but it didn't appear he had a chance to retire Iwamura. Utley turned to make it seem like he was throwing to first, but faked the toss. Rays third base coach Tom Foley was fooled by Utley's fake and didn't stop Bartlett, who kept running home. Utley threw an off-balance, one-hopper to the plate. Catcher Carlos Ruiz reached for the ball and dove back to make a swipe tag to end the inning.

Had Utley not retired Bartlett, the Rays would've taken the lead and it may have been a turning point in the Series. Instead, the Phillies scored the go-ahead run in the eighth and finished off the Rays.

"It turned out to be an important play," Utley said. "It's something I work on in practice. All infielders are taught to knock the ball down if there's a guy on second and two outs. You want to knock it down and not let it get to the outfield and allow the runner to score. That was one of those situations where I was lucky enough to glove it, the guy took a big turn and there you go."

Utley downplays everything he does. He's an intense, hard-nosed throwback who doesn't care about self-promotion. During the season, Utley constantly works on improving his game. He spends long hours in the batting cage, watches video and makes sure he's always prepared. Utley works just as hard in the offseason, which made the last few months very difficult.

Utley had surgery on his right hip on Nov. 24, so he couldn't take batting practice all winter. He just started hitting soft tosses and taking swings off a tee. He's far ahead of the original prognosis, which was four to six months.

Of course, Utley dedicated himself to his rehab and was taking grounders with the rest of his teammates when the Phillies held their first full-squad workout this spring. He's optimistic he'll be ready for Opening Day against Atlanta on April 5.

"I think it's pretty realistic at this point," Utley said. "We've pushed it since I've been down here and it's responded extremely well. We're not overdoing it yet, but we're putting it to a good pace and I think we're all pretty comfortable with it."

Utley batted .292 with 104 RBIs and a career-high 33 homers last year, despite playing through pain most of the season. After a strong start, his production tailed off drastically. Utley hit .352 in April, but his average dropped to .279 over the last five months. He had 12 homers in the final 103 games after belting 21 in the first 59.

Though people knew Utley was hurting down the stretch, he never let on. He shrugged off any questions about his hip and kept plugging along.

"The last thing I wanted to be was a distraction, especially at the end of the year when we were playing so well," he said. "I always felt like I had an opportunity to help the team. Not every day I helped, but I felt like I had a small part in that at least. It's a learning experience, but we got through it. I don't know how it's going to change anything I do in the future. I guess we'll see."

The 30-year-old Utley didn't become an everyday starter until June 2005. He hit .291 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs that year. In '06, Utley batted .309 with 32 homers and 102 RBIs. That earned him an $85 million, seven-year contract extension. Utley had a career-best .332 average, 22 homers and 103 RBIs in '07, though he missed a month with a broken hand.

Notes

3B Pedro Feliz, who had back surgery last November, fielded grounders for the first time this spring. ... Marcus Giles, a former All-Star second baseman with Atlanta, took grounders exclusively at third on Thursday. Giles is trying to resurrect his career after spending one season out of baseball.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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