PHILADELPHIA – Chase Utley stepped into the carpeted batter's box to take a few swings and the television cameras shined brightly.
This was no ordinary round of batting practice.
Utley was back in the lineup and hitting second for the Philadelphia Phillies after the five-time All-Star second baseman missed the first 46 games with a knee injury.
"You guys obviously know I enjoy playing and it's both disappointing and frustrating being on the sidelines and not being able to help," Utley said before Monday night's game against Cincinnati.
His return couldn't come soon enough for the four-time defending NL East champions. The first-place Phillies are struggling offensively and certainly can use a boost from Utley. Though he's coming off a down season — .275 average with 16 homers and 65 RBIs in 115 games last year — Utley is one of the top hitters in Philadelphia's lineup.
"It's pretty frustrating not to be able to go out and help your team win," Utley said. "But I'm proud of my teammates. They've done an outstanding job these first two months. The pitching staff has been outstanding. I know there's been a lot of negative talk recently on how our offense has been struggling, but that's why we play for six months. It's an up and down game. As long as you stay positive with the other guys, you'll get through that."
Utley spent a few weeks rehabbing his knee in Florida and feels comfortable with the progress in his recovery. He doesn't expect to have surgery after the season, but he might be more willing to take a day off occasionally. Manager Charlie Manuel may not give him a choice.
"Charlie and I will talk on a daily basis and see where we're at every single day, but I definitely want to be out there," Utley said. "I think I know my body better than anybody else. I know what I can deal with and I know what I can't deal with. This has been a learning experience for me. I've had to show a little patience throughout this whole process, which I think has been beneficial. We'll see how it goes."
Utley's injury is a tricky one. He was diagnosed in February with patellar tendinitis in his right knee, bone inflammation and chondromalacia, which is pain due to irritation under the kneecap. Utley missed all of spring training and didn't face live pitching until May 7.
"There was really no timetable set because it was kind of uncertain how it was going to progress," he said. "I don't necessarily think I came back early or came back too late. I think I'm coming back when I feel it's best for me."
Placido Polanco remained in the No. 3 hole, which is Utley's usual spot. Utley is a career .293 hitter with 177 homers and 650 RBIs.