- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel considers Chase Utley a "throwback" player, so it's only fitting that Utley's at-bats are brought to you by the revered 1970s band Led Zeppelin. His walk-up song, "Kashmir," begins with the lyric, "Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream. I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been."
Utley's personal tale isn't quite that cosmic, but there's more than enough joy, pathos and determination to go around. He made five All-Star teams and won four Silver Slugger Awards by the age of 31 before injuries began to put a crimp in his Hall of Fame portfolio. He hasn't traveled through time and space this spring. But he did visit Brett Fischer's rehab facility in Arizona and log some rehab at-bats with the Clearwater Threshers and Lehigh Valley IronPigs before settling into the batter's box at Citizens Bank Park for the 77th game of the Phillies' season.
It was about time.
The ballpark entertainment folks threw the crowd a curve before Utley's first plate appearance by stowing the Zeppelin and playing some generic fanfare music. The obligatory standing ovation ensued. Then Pittsburgh Pirates starter James McDonald threw a 77 mph bender with his fifth pitch, and Utley smacked a solo homer to right field to generate the type of buzz that has been hard to maintain in a wayward season for the Phillies.
By the end of the night, there were several encouraging moments to savor. Utley busted it hard down the line to beat out an infield hit, lined a single to right field and hit a long fly ball to center that Andrew McCutchen hauled in at the fence. Utley also chased down a couple of popups and broke up a double play with an aggressive takeout slide in the sixth inning. If there is such a thing as a comprehensive test for the chronic knee condition known as bilateral chondromalacia, Utley passed it in his 2012 debut.
Utley tends to keep his innermost feelings to himself. But, after the game, when a writer asked whether he had taken some of the perceived doubts about his comeback personally, he laid his emotions on the line.
"One hundred percent," Utley said. "If anybody knows me, I think they know what kind of guy I am. I put a lot of work into this, obviously. It's a frustrating situation. I never wanted to be in this situation in the first place. But you have to battle through it, and I feel like I've done a good job so far and hopefully I can continue that."
Utley's performance should have been a cause for celebration in Philadelphia. Instead, it shed a whole new light on the same old nagging questions that plague his team. At some point next month, the Phillies' high-powered roster has a chance to be fully intact. But will there be a season left to save?
After the Pirates laid the wood to the Phillies with an 11-7 victory Wednesday, Manuel conceded that his team's battered, beleaguered and ineffectual bullpen has to turn it around soon. He didn't sound like a manager with an abundance of patience.
"We have to get our bullpen straightened out. Absolutely," Manuel said. "What do I always say? Watch the game. You see it. We see it, and [the relievers] know it. If we continue to pitch these guys, they've got to improve."
At times, the 2012 season has felt like one long day at the motor vehicle bureau for Manuel. He has waited for Ryan Howard to come back from an Achilles injury, waited for updates on Roy Halladay's strained latissimus dorsi, waited for Cliff Lee to record his first victory, waited for someone to step forward and provide consistently reliable setup work in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon, and waited for the Phillies to put together an extended run to get back in the NL East race.
Every piece of good news is balanced out by a corresponding negative. Jimmy Rollins is hitting .342 (40-for-117) since May 29, but he tied his 2011 season total of seven errors Wednesday night. Shane Victorino equaled last year's total of 19 stolen bases, but he's hitting a pedestrian .251. With the exception of Cole Hamels' sustained brilliance and Carlos Ruiz's All-Star-worthy play at catcher, the Phillies can't seem to count on much from one game to the next.
So, when Manuel received a double dose of positive news on Utley and Howard on Wednesday, it was like Christmas in June. And he felt as if he had just found a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle in the corner of the living room in his own "Christmas Story."
Howard's left Achilles tendon has progressed to the point that he will begin a rehab assignment as the designated hitter for Philadelphia's Class A Lakewood farm club Thursday. It's tough to ask him to emulate his production from 2006 through last season, when he led the majors with 262 homers and ranked fifth in slugging percentage behind Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun and Joey Votto. But Howard cuts a wide swath in the batter's box that's hard to replace when he's on the disabled list.
Howard said his swing feels fine, although he needs to rebuild some strength in his left leg and make some minor adjustments in his running style to overcome a "hitch in my giddyup." He isn't sure when he will be back to 100 percent physically.
"Who knows, man?" Howard said. "Maybe not until next year. But if it's 85 percent, all I can do is give you 100 percent of 85 percent."
At 33, Utley is no longer the player who ranked second to Pujols with 38.8 wins above replacement from 2005 through 2009. But he still puts together a terrific at-bat, runs the bases impeccably and sets the tone for his teammates with his businesslike demeanor. Utley's fellow Phillies marvel when he fouls a ball off his kneecap or his ankle -- an excruciating experience -- and doesn't give the opposing team the satisfaction of seeing him wince. By playing the game the right way, every day, he gives his fellow Phillies no latitude to run out balls halfheartedly or shrug off mental mistakes.
Utley has mapped out a game plan with his manager to ease him back into the mix. Utley is not expected to play Thursday against the Pirates in a Citizens Bank Park matinee. Beyond that, the plan calls for him to go two games on and one game off until he is comfortable enough to be in the lineup every day.
Regardless of whether his name is on the card, Utley will help the Phillies feel as if a semblance of order has been restored to their clubhouse with his mere presence.
"He's a leader," Manuel said. "He doesn't talk a whole lot, but he'll grab guys and take them off to the side. The other players respect him so much, all he has to do is look at you."
If a few cold stares could solve the Phillies' late-inning pitching woes, Manuel might consider asking Utley to give it a try. The Phillies wish it were that simple.
The oft-injured Phillies got Chase Utley back, but is it in time to get them in contention?