It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. Chase Utley hadn’t taken the field for a spring training game and the Phillies kept telling us it was just a precautionary measure and nothing serious. And we believed them, mainly because we wanted to believe them. Still, there was always this nagging doubt in the backs of our minds and now, well, who knows?
The official word from Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that Utley, the All-Star second baseman, is “doubtful’’ for opening day because of his chronic knee problems. OK, but how about the day after opening day? And the day after that? And the day after that?
That’s the last things the Phillies and their fans needed to hear right now as spring training starts to heat up. Utley has suffered a setback in his battle against chronic knee pain and now nobody knows how many games he’ll play this season or, even more importantly, how well he’ll play.
That last part is crucial, because the sore knees are taking away the things that made Utley special – his tenacity and his dependability. Nobody played harder and nobody was harder to move out of the lineup. Utley played almost every game and he played them all the same way – pedal to the metal – and that has taken its toll.
Utley is 33, which isn’t young for a professional athlete, but it’s not old, either. He should still be in his prime. But, as Indiana Jones once said: It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.
The Phillies were already prepared to begin the 2012 season without their No. 4 hitter, first baseman Ryan Howard, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. Now they find out that they don’t know what to expect from the all-important No. 3 hitter, Utley.
Nobody really saw this coming when spring training started. Everybody was hopeful that an offseason of rest and rehab would allow those balky knees to make it through another season. The Phillies apparently knew something was up, which is why Utley has done practically nothing in spring training. But they weren’t necessarily stonewalling the media and fans about Utley’s condition. They were just like everybody else – they had their fingers crossed that the nagging problem would take care of itself.
But this isn’t like a sprained ankle or a pulled hamstring or a broken bone or a torn ligament, injuries that can be cured with surgery or rest. Utley has a degenerative condition that will only get worse, not better. And Utley is getting older, not younger. That’s a bad combination.
His setback also underscores the Phillies’ failure to acquire another offensive threat in the offseason. They already knew Howard would be out for a while and they had to at least suspect Utley might have a flare-up of last season’s knee problems. They also knew that injures in the last two seasons have made shortstop Jimmy Rollins and third baseman Placido Polanco ordinary players.
And that means the most important player on the Phillies roster this season will be John Mayberry Jr. The Phillies are also crossing their fingers about him, but for a different reason. He finally played up to his potential last season, but that was in a platoon system with since-departed Raul Ibanez. Now he has to produce as an everyday player and if he doesn’t, the Phillies’ offense will take another step backward.
That doesn’t bode well for this team, even with its ace pitching staff. Pitching might be 90 percent of the game, but you still need that other 10 percent to win a World Series championship, and that’s the only thing that will satisfy the Phillies and their fans. That pitching might be enough to make it to the playoffs again, even though National League East is much improved. But when you get to the playoffs the other teams have good pitching, too, and that good pitching has shut down the Phillies in the playoffs the last two seasons.
The Phillies will do their best to adapt and manager Charlie Manuel will play the hand that he’s been dealt. That will probably mean putting right fielder Hunter Pence in Utley’s No. 3 hole and Mayberry in Howard’s No. 4 hole and hoping for the best.
The only problem is that the Phillies’ best might not be good enough anymore. And that’s why there’s a hard-to-shake feeling that the Phils’ amazing ride that has captivated the Delaware Valley the last few seasons might finally be over.
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.