CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley has yet to appear on the daily Phillies medical report so loathed by Charlie Manuel. The blue step stool used as an aid for fielding groundballs remains stored in a closet. There are no secret trips to knee specialists.
"To be honest," Utley said, "I forgot what a normal spring training schedule is."
That will happen when three years pass between Grapefruit League appearances. Nothing else mattered Saturday for these Phillies, who opened their 67th straight spring schedule in this beach town with a lackluster 8-3 loss to Houston. Utley sprinted from the home dugout, Led Zeppelin played when he batted, and three innings served as the first validation for his new training program.
Utley smacked the first pitch he saw from Astros righty Lucas Harrell right up the middle for a run-scoring single in the first inning. He went from first base to third on a Ryan Howard groundout to second base. He flied out to center in the third inning. At second base, he fielded one pop up.
"It was exciting," Utley said. "It was a good first step."
Utley was the only starting player to leave after three innings. He will rest his chronically injured knees Sunday and then play Monday. Both Utley and Manuel were vague on the second baseman's spring schedule but implied it would be close to a normal one.
Manuel likes his regulars to reach 70 plate appearances during Grapefruit League play. Utley is exempt from that.
"I'm not worried about it," Manuel said. "I will probably monitor his playing more. I want him to be ready."
Utley will not travel on the longer road trips. But Manuel said he is not treating him as an injured player. The pain in Utley's chronically injured knees will never cease; it must be managed for the remainder of his playing career.
Right now, it is tolerable. He can actually focus on his game rather than health.
"The last couple of spring trainings I was just trying to figure out a way to get on the field and that didn't work," Utley said. "This year, with the stuff I did in the offseason, it has worked so far. Hopefully it will give me a chance to not only know what I need to do to get on the field but to actually make some progressions while playing."
The question is whether Utley's new regimen will keep him active for the entire season. No one can predict that. His total plate appearances have decreased every year since 2008.
Utley's numbers improved from 2011 to 2012. Most notably, he made better contact. Manuel said Utley hit a "hard" .256, meaning some of his outs were the result of bad luck.
In 2012, 21.4 percent of Utley's batted balls were line drives, according to FanGraphs.com. That rate was 12.7 percent in 2011, among the lowest in baseball. His 2012 line drive rate was its highest since 2008.
His first swing this spring elicited a smile from Manuel. For starters, that is good enough.
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