Chase Utley Is Not Jesus Christ

We've all been awaiting a savior, but the Phillies need a lot more than that to cure what ails them

One can expect a roaring welcome for Chase Utley tonight when he makes his 2011 debut. He’ll be in his customary third spot in the lineup, playing second base with his trademark cool efficiency. After the Phillies’ two-week stretch that has featured sub-.500 baseball (6-7) against strong opposition, Utley’s return is a reason for some smiles among numbed fans who forget what a slugfest looks like.

It is not, however, a solution to the team’s problems. Adding Utley to a lineup that craves Schwartzeneggerian potency is nice, but it can hardly be considered a panacea. Utley is good, but his aching knee –- on top of the many other injuries he has suffered during his career -– prevents him from being a savior. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see results similar to those Utley produced during the five-year stretch (2005-09) that led many to consider him the best second baseman in the game and to champion his Hall of Fame prospects.

Those hoping for daily doses of that short, powerful swing or wide-ranging defensive prowess are probably the same people who believe the Phillies’ corner outfield situation will improve, and all John Mayberry, Jr. needs is a “chance” to get regular at-bats. There is a reason he and Ben Francisco haven’t been MLB starters, and it has nothing to do with lack of opportunity. They are reserves, at best, on a good team.

Utley’s knee, which has been ravaged by patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia, may be relatively pain-free and functioning well, but it is far from healthy and structurally sound. Utley has rested and rehabbed the joint and its supporting cast. He has likely taken anti-inflammatories, as most doctors prescribe for this malady. His hamstrings are no doubt more flexible than they have ever been, and his quads are strong. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to play 110 games over the next four months. He’ll likely go two-on, one-off for a while, with a goal of being ready for full participation once the playoffs come.

The funny thing about that statement is that the Phillies are preparing for the post-season as if they are an NBA team. Four National League clubs play in October, not eight. And thinking a medium dose of Utley and continued great starting pitching are enough to win the NL East borders on arrogance. Anybody who had the misfortune of suffering through nine Phillies’ at bats Sunday knows this team needs more than just a dazzling array of starting pitching and 75 percent of Chase Utley to win. Despite the team’s four-year streak of post-season participation, the playoffs are not guaranteed.

It’s chic to preach patience around this team now, using the “it’s a long season” argument or the “just wait ‘til it warms up” line or reason. And as long as Messrs Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt (and maybe even Worley) continue to throw so well, who needs five runs a game -– or even two? But the Phillies have problems that can’t just be solved by Utley’s return or great starting pitching.

It starts at the top of the order, where Jimmy Rollins is not only hitting a mediocre .262, he is also playing tentatively at times in the field. The outfield situation will improve when Shane Victorino returns from the disabled list, but Mayberry, Francisco, Raul Ibanez and even Domonic Brown are not a championship caliber collection on the corners.

Ryan Howard is in one of his classic slumps, with three hits in his last 31 at bats, although the past two games (3-of-8) indicate he may be emerging from the funk. Placido Polanco has been great at third, but the catching situation is a mess, even when the beloved Carlos Ruiz is in the lineup. Let’s face it: This is not an imposing lineup, and merely adding Utley to it won’t make that big of a difference. GM Ruben Amaro must remain calm over the next month while still gauging the market so that he’ll be able to act decisively when it comes time to make a trade.

Further, it is wise to consider manager Charlie Manuel’s comments last week, when he requested a little more urgency from his players. Baseball is a different kind of game, and it requires a more steady, measured approach to its daily rhythm. Applying an aggressive, football-style attitude to the game will almost certainly lead to burnout, unless you are Pete Rose or have a world-class pharmacist at your disposal. The quiet confidence the Phillies exude is great, unless that self-belief becomes complacency. Then, it pervades the team and makes it difficult to overcome obstacles -– like horrific hitting slumps.

Bringing Utley back to the field will create excitement for fans and perhaps even inspire the players. But he remains compromised physically and unlikely to make a sustained impact, at least during his first couple weeks. While he gathers momentum and settles into a (somewhat lessened) level of productivity on which the team can depend, there remains work to be done. Since a blockbuster move is unlikely, at least for at least six weeks, the rest of the team must boost its play, either by applying a little more want-to, working deeper counts, focusing on the basics of situational hitting or all of the above. The Phillies have great starting pitching and a fine close in Ryan Madson. That isn’t enough to win a league title, Utley or no Utley.

* Congratulations to Bernard Hopkins for winning the title in Montreal Saturday night. He is a great fighter who should be celebrated for his fistic prowess -– and ignored whenever he speaks about nearly everything else.

* The Flyers must do whatever it takes to sign Ilya Bryzgalov, even if that means parting with someone like Jeff Carter to clear cap space. Championship teams need stability between the pipes, and the Flyers lacked that during the post-season.

* R.I.P. Congie DeVito. Although the devoted Temple fan and West Point Thoroughbreds employee became known to most of Philadelphia only recently, his story was compelling and inspiring. The impact he made in just 35 years dwarfs what many do in twice that time -– and without a crippling disease (Osteogenesis Imperfecta) making every moment a struggle. The only thing that would have made the many tributes to DeVito perfect would have been a Preakness win by King Congie, the horse named for him. While the thoroughbred didn’t find the winner’s circle at Pimlico, DeVito spent every minute of his life there.