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Utley appears good to go for return to Phillies

Utley appears good to go for return to Phillies
ALL View Full Game Coverage ENTOWN, Pa. -- The lights over Coca-Cola Park had barely taken hold when Chase Utley stepped to the plate for the third time, leading off the bottom of the fourth inning, wearing the uniform of the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

His first two times up on Tuesday night, the Phillies' rehabbing All-Star second baseman had gone the other way, lining out to left in the first and singling past the shortstop in the second. And back in Philadelphia, fans were hoping that Utley's first rehab game with the Pigs would be his last.

In nine previous games at Class A Clearwater, Utley hit .155. But if all went well, the plan was for his next game to be back at Citizens Bank Park, playing against the Pirates.

All went well.

Rochester right-hander Esmerling Vasquez, the second Red Wings pitcher of the game, worked the count to 1-2. Then the former D-backs reliever left a changeup a little high in the zone and Utley turned on it, driving it over the high fence in right-center for a home run.

Utley played the entire game, going 2-for-5 (striking out in his final two at-bats) and making all the plays defensively as the IronPigs romped, 10-3. Afterward, however, he remained coy about when he'd play his first Major League game of the season after missing almost three months with a chronic knee condition known as chondromalacia.

"So far, so good," Utley said. "I'm looking forward to moving forward. I'll talk to [general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.] and tell him how I feel and go from there. Right now I feel good. Everything so far has been pretty good. I got a few pitches to hit, put some decent swings on the ball. And there you go. I felt like I got a few kinds of balls defensively and made out OK. So in my mind that's a positive. I'm feeling pretty confident. I felt a little bit more comfortable out there on the field and in the batter's box, and hopefully I'll move forward from here."

Utley should be in a better position to contribute than he did last year, when he batted .259 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs in 103 games.

"I think I'm a little bit more confident in the things that I'm doing and what's working for me," he said. "I didn't feel that bad coming back last year. I didn't have a whole lot of leg strength, and for me that's the bottom line -- trying to keep my legs strong without irritating them -- and right now we're moving forward. I feel like I can get them stronger over the next few months and make some improvement there. I think the more that I play, the more at-bats I get, the more repetitions in the field, I think I'll continue to improve.

"I actually swung the bat a little bit better than the numbers showed down in Clearwater. It was nice to see some different pitching. The game is a little faster at this level. That's kind of what I anticipated, and I'm glad I got to play here."

All of which certainly points to him batting third in manager Charlie Manuel's lineup on Wednesday night. A roster move, possibly involving infielder Michael Martinez, will have to be made to clear a roster spot.

Utley's first test in the field came in the top of the first. Red Wings shortstop Pedro Florimon led off with a line drive into the gap in right-center. Utley took the relay and pegged a strong, accurate throw to third, just a little late to catch the sliding runner. His first assist came in the fifth, when he moved to his left to field a grounder by Rochester third baseman Danny Valencia and threw him out by a step.

Utley recorded the final out of the sixth by ranging far to his left and making the play on designated hitter Brian Dinkelman. With his momentum carrying him toward the line, he made a backhanded flip to retire the runner.

"I didn't get too many opportunities down in Clearwater. Those were two of the more difficult plays that I've had so far, and it worked out well," he said.

Each time Utley stepped to the plate, his familiar walk-up music, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," played over the sound system. But instead of his usual No. 26, Utley wore No. 21. The reason? His number is already taken -- by FeRROUS, the IronPigs' mascot.

He also wore his pants high, as all Phillies Minor Leaguers are required to do.

Before the game, Lehigh Valley's manager, Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, talked about much fun he had hitting fungoes and throwing batting practice to Utley. And though there's been no official announcement, it would be a shock if Sandberg had that opportunity again on Wednesday.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for

Philadelphia Phillies, Chase Utley