CLEARWATER, Fla. – Chase Utley cemented his reputation for being a hard worker long ago.
First to arrive at the ballpark. Last to leave. Whether it's spring training or the regular season, that's Utley's way. It's helped him become a five-time All-Star second baseman and the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Phillies' offense as the No. 3 hitter.
But numbers don't lie, and Utley's production has slipped in recent years. Injuries have been a problem. That's an excuse, though.
"I can always improve," Utley said Thursday.
Utley's average has dropped each year since he hit a career-best .332 in 2007. He went down 40 points to .292 in '08. He batted .282 in '09 and .275 last year. From 2005-2009, Utley averaged 29 homers and 101 RBIs. He hit just 16 homers and had 65 RBIs last season when a thumb injury forced him to miss 47 games.
Even before he got hurt last June, Utley was struggling. He was batting .277 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs in 72 games — far below his usual output. At a similar point in '09, he had a .304 average, 17 homers and 52 RBIs. Over the first 72 games in '08, Utley hit .303 with 22 homers and 62 RBIs.
"Baseball is a game of failure and good players learn how to deal with that failure and not let it affect them," Utley said. "This year is no different. I'm going to try to improve on years past and go from there."
Utley wasn't the only offensive star who slumped last year. Every regular except catcher Carlos Ruiz had a statistical decline.
The four-time NL East champion Phillies used to rely on a potent offense to win games. Now pitching is clearly their strength.
"We're better than we showed last year. Hopefully guys worked hard this offseason which it looks like they did and we're ready to go," Utley said. "Our pitching staff is pretty strong. It's a good backbone. We need to continue to work hard and play our game and win."
As usual, Utley showed up early to spring training. He said he added 10 pounds to his frame from the end of last season. But maintaining that weight throughout the year has always been an issue for the hard-nosed, gritty Utley. He's a career .265 hitter in August and .272 in September. He's hit at least .290 in every other month. That's an indication that he wears down physically over the course of the season.
Then again, Utley had enough left in the tank in '09 to tie Reggie Jackson's record for homers in a World Series with five. The Phillies had a week off before the Series, though, allowing Utley plenty of rest.
Does he plan any changes this year? Maybe add a workout regimen during the season — something he's been opposed to in the past?
"Every year is kind of a game of adjustments," he said. "You try to work out what works best for you at that time. I imagine there will be a few adjustments this year."
Utley doesn't say much, and he's not giving away any secrets now. He does plan to seek input from Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. The Phillies hired Sandberg to manage Triple-A Lehigh Valley, bringing back a player they once traded in perhaps the most lopsided deal in baseball history.
"Without a doubt I'm planning to pick his brain," Utley said. "We've already had a few conversations. He's one of the best second basemen of all-time. I'd be dumb not to pick his brain."
Utley spends long hours in the batting cage, watches video and makes sure he's always prepared before games. His work habits are admirable, but may lead to mental fatigue at times.
"I think sometimes that might be his biggest problem," manager Charlie Manuel said. "If we can give him a day off every now and then, that will be better for him. But I still look at him as a guy who's going to play more than 145 games, close to 150."
Utley is an intense player with a strong desire to succeed. So he works even harder than usual when he's slumping.
"When things are not going good, he likes to stand in there and pound the hell out of the ball and he'll work until he finds it," Manuel said. "He likes to have his hitting coach in there with him and talk to him but he does a lot of his hitting on his own, tee work and things like that. He wants to correct it and he's determined to do good."
Manuel can take Utley's name off the lineup card to give him some rest, but that doesn't necessarily mean he won't do anything else that day. Manuel said it's "kind of hard" to get Utley to take a complete day off and not work on his hitting.
"He doesn't want to come out of the lineup and he wants to play every day," Manuel said. "But there are times you have to make up you're mind and sit him."
The 31-year-old Utley is probably the most popular player on the Phillies, though Cliff Lee could be pushing him for that distinction. Utley quickly won over fans in Philadelphia with his blue-collar playing style. He goes all-out all the time, hustles from first to third on hits and has scored from second on infield grounders.
While former NL MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins have been criticized and even booed, Utley seems to get a pass from most fans and media. When he's not hitting, people automatically assume he's playing hurt. That's because Utley did so in the past. Utley played through a hip injury that required offseason surgery in '08, helping the Phillies win the World Series in the process.
"I think people fall in love with how he plays," Manuel said. "I think Ut is the kind of guy who doesn't look for attention and I'm not sure he has to have it at all. He loves baseball and he wants to play right and he wants our team to play right. His expectation of himself is high. I think they see how he plays and nationally, not only in Philadelphia, but when guys see how he plays, how he goes about it and how hard he plays, his makeup, I think that definitely helps people like to sit and watch him play. He's quiet, he doesn't smile a lot and he's intense. He's very professional."