Utley's hot start answers health concerns

Utley's hot start answers health concerns

PHILADELPHIA -- Chase Utley said Friday he is a private person, so he probably would not admit if an injury affected his play.

Utley then said he is fine.

The Phillies said he is fine, too.

He looked fine Friday night against the Minnesota Twins at Citizens Bank Park. Utley, who dismissed a report before the game that he has an injured right knee, singled and scored from first on a triple in the first inning, hit a three-run home run to right field in the second inning, and made a fantastic diving catch in the third inning. He went 2-for-5 with four RBIs in a 9-5 victory.

Why all the fuss? Utley entered the game hitting just .257 with 10 home runs, 26 RBIs and an .829 on-base-plus-slugging percentage -- the lowest OPS of his career since he became an everyday player in 2005. Many had suspected Utley was hurt -- Utley said Tuesday in New York, "As far as I know I'm healthy, yes" -- and Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes fueled those suspicions when he told Baseball Prospectus, "Chase has been hampered by a little bit of a knee injury."

"I think there's a little confusion and maybe a little bit of a difference of opinion with what Davey said," Utley said before the game. "In my opinion, an injury is something that keeps you off the field. When you play 162-games-plus over the course of the year, you're going to have aches and pains. That's part of this game. That's part of being a baseball player. In my opinion there's no injury whatsoever."

Utley acknowledged he has had occasional soreness in his right knee, and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. acknowledged Utley has been on the team's injury report, although Amaro said most of the team has been on the report.

But Utley said he sees no correlation between the soreness in his right knee and his performance at the plate.

"There's no excuse for it," he said. "It's been a little bit of a battle here the last month, trying to make some adjustments, tinkering with some things. It's part of baseball, something you're going to have to deal with. It something I've been through before, and a lot of people have been through before."

"If people think that this is altering the way he bats, or hits ,or something like that, we have no indication of that at all," Amaro said.

Amaro said Utley puts ice on his knee "from time to time after the games. It's not anything different than when pitchers throw their bullpens or guys have soreness in their backs. It's part of being an athlete, a professional athlete."

Utley said he has iced his knees, ankles, and back at different times this season. Other players have, too. Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has had both his ankles wrapped in ice after games. Carlos Ruiz has had his right shoulder wrapped in ice.

So it could be just normal aches and pains from playing every day. But the skeptics will remain skeptical. Utley played through a hip injury during the 2008 season. Utley and the Phillies downplayed its effect, but a few weeks after the Phillies won the World Series he had hip surgery. Raul Ibanez played through torn abdominal muscles in 2009. Ibanez and the Phillies downplayed them, but a few days after the Phillies lost the World Series he had surgery.

How is this different than Utley's hip injury in 2008 and Ibanez's abdominal injury in 2009?

"All I can tell you is that Davey is not our spokesman for our medical stuff," Amaro said. "That comes from me or [assistant general manager] Scott Proefrock or [head athletic trainer] Scott Sheridan or Dr. [Michael] Ciccotti. This is not an injury. This is more preventative. Take it for what it's worth, I guess."

Amaro said he isn't sure when he first heard about Utley's knee injury because "it wasn't serious enough for me to worry about it."

Utley did not appreciate Lopes mentioning his knee.

"I'm a fairly private person," Utley said. "I have a lot of pride to try to stay on the field, and I think I've done a pretty good job of doing that."

Lopes declined comment.

Utley has looked fine running the bases and playing defense. It would seem if Utley's knee were bothering him, it would show up on the field. Then again, Utley has stolen just four bases this season.

What gives?

"I haven't been on base as much," he said.

Utley has a .377 on-base percentage, which actually is on par with other seasons. He had a .376 OBP in 2005, when he stole 16 bases; a .379 OBP in 2006, when he stole 15 bases; a .410 OBP in 2007, when he stole nine bases; a .380 OBP in 2008, when he stole 14 bases; and a .397 OBP in 2009, when he stole a career-high 23 bases. He is on pace to steal 10 bases. He has averaged 15.4 stolen bases per year since 2004.

"In my situation, you have to pick your times when you want to steal a base," Utley said. "You have the middle of the lineup up, you definitely don't want to run into an out there. Teams have done a better job of holding us on."

Is Utley hurt and downplaying it? Or have some everyday aches and pains been blown out of proportion based on Lopes' comment?

Based on his performance Friday night, Utley is OK. Asked if he tried to prove everybody wrong, Utley smiled. He said he doesn't need extra motivation.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.