PHILADELPHIA — The cheers at Citizens Bank Park were deafening when Phillies second baseman Chase Utley trotted out of the dugout at the start of Wednesday’s game.
The roars were even louder in the bottom of the first inning, when Utley strode to the plate as Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” blared from the speakers, and then bashed a 395-foot home run into the right-field seats.
The Phillies finally had their fiery leader back.
The 33-year-old five-time All-Star made his season debut after missing the first 76 games with chronic knee pain. Utley got his season off to a sensational start against Pittsburgh, going 3-for-5 at the plate while making three acrobatic plays in the field in an 11-7 loss to the Pirates.
“It was pretty exciting,” Utley said after the game. “The fans were awesome. It was exciting just to be out there playing again. It’s been a long road just to get to this point.”
Utley’s debut was ruined by an all-reliever combination of Phillies pitchers who gave up 14 hits and 11 runs. With no starter available due to a doubleheader last Sunday, Raul Valdes started the game and was followed by Joe Savery, Michael Schwimer, Jake Diekman, Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo.
But Utley’s mere presence created a buzz among not only among the fans but also his teammates and coaches.
Before the game, there was an electricity in a normally quiet and calm clubhouse in anticipation of Utley’s return.
“I think there’s a different energy at the ballpark and in the clubhouse,” Phils manager Charlie Manuel said before the game. “He’s definitely a leader for us. He doesn’t talk a whole lot, but he’ll grab guys off to the side and talk to them and stuff. The guys really respect him because of his work ethic. He loves to play the game and he’s really tough. He’s a hard-nosed player.”
Utley certainly didn’t wait long to make an impact. He made a nice defensive play in the top of the first, sprinting into foul territory to snare Andrew McCutchen’s popup. He drew a loud and long standing ovation on his first at-bat by driving a 2-2 pitch from Pirates right-hander James MacDonald into the bleachers above the out-of-town scoreboard in right field.
When he arrived back at the dugout, he exchanged a fist bump with Manuel before getting congratulated by right fielder Hunter Pence and others.
“He was definitely fired up,” Manuel said after the game. “And our team was fired up. He was ready to play.”
More impressive was his infield single in the bottom of the sixth. Utley’s balky knee didn’t prevent him from hustling down the line to beat out a grounder into the hole.
The reactions from fans and teammates was not surprising. From the moment Utley took the field for batting practice three hours before the game, there was a noticeable change in the vibe surrounding the Phillies.
They have spent the bulk of the season trying to stay in contention while dealing with an assortment of injuries to key players such as first baseman Ryan Howard (ruptured left Achilles’ tendon) and ace Roy Halladay (strained right shoulder).
Utley’s return and the sight of Howard swatting home runs during batting practice Wednesday — he will start a rehab assignment in Lakewood today — provided a much-needed boost.
“It’s an exciting day,” Pence shouted as he strolled through the dugout before the game.
The Phils plan to bring Utley along slowly. Manuel said Utley will not play today against the Pirates and will not play more than two games in a row until they return from the All-Star break on July 13.
That’s also when the Phils could have Howard in the lineup for the first time this season. The slugger missed his 77th game Wednesday after tearing his left Achilles’ tendon while making the final out of the 2011 season. His rehab was pushed back after he developed an infection during spring training.
“I feel good,” Howard said while munching on some grapes and pineapple slices Wednesday. “My Achilles is fine now. That’s not a concern anymore. It’s a matter of building up my calf (muscle) and getting more comfortable and confident when I’m exploding out of the batter’s box and running.”
Howard performed some conditioning drills Wednesday afternoon and then took batting practice with the team. He displayed the same swing that has launched 286 career home runs and helped him win the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2006.
The 32-year-old will begin a rehab assignment today at Lakewood. He will serve as the Blue Claws’ designated hitter before eventually returning to first base. As a position player, his rehab cannot last more than 20 days.
“I don’t know when I’m going to feel 100 percent again,” Howard said. “Honestly, it might not be until next year. The only thing I can do is give 100 percent of 85 percent. But I am getting better. I’m not going to have that Olympic time trial-type speed right away. I won’t be stealing any bases, which saddens me. But I was excited to see Chase play tonight and I’m anxious to get back.”
The faster, the better for the Phillies.
They have shown signs of life lately behind catcher Carlos Ruiz — the league’s leading hitter — and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. But if they want to earn one of the wild-card playoff spots or even challenge for the NL East championship, they will need veteran Utley and Howard in the lineup.
“When we get them back, we’re a better team,” Manuel said. “I’m not seeing anything negative in the guys we have now. But we can be the best team when we get those other guys back because they are core players who demand the best out of the other guys.”
Extra innings: Halladay is making progress in his recovery from a back injury and could throw off a bullpen mound next week, the team said. ... Ruiz, the National League’s leading hitter, followed Utley’s first-inning homer with a solo shot to left. It was the second time this season the Phils have had back-to-back homers. Shane Victorino and Ruiz accomplished the feat at Arizona on April 23. ... To make room for Utley on the 25-man roster, the Phils optioned infielder Michael Martinez to triple-A Lehigh Valley. ... Savery was optioned to Lehigh Valley after the game.
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