ATLANTA - It was more than two hours before game time, and the first player to emerge in the visitors dugout at Turner Field was Chase Utley.
The Phillies' five-time all-star second baseman was not going to miss this opening day. Not after missing the last two. Not after starting his preparation for this season almost immediately after the end of last season.
There was a look in Utley's eyes Monday as he leaned on the dugout railing and awaited the team's stretch exercises in preparation for his first opening day since 2010. You could tell this meant more than a little something to him.
You could see him soaking in the atmosphere and taking in the moment that his creaky knees had stolen from him the last two seasons.
And if you could not, he made sure to drive home the point during the Phillies' 7-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves by going 3 for 5 with a home run, a triple, and three RBIs.
Utley, 34, admitted there was some significance to playing on opening day, but he did not let the focus linger long on his own accomplishments.
"Yeah, of course," he said. "I worked hard this offseason to get to this point. I thought tonight [the Braves] swung the bats pretty well. We had some opportunities to tie the game. We just didn't get the big hit."
With lefthander Cole Hamels struggling in the first opening-day start of his career, Utley was the primary reason the Phillies were in the game.
His first on-the-field statement came in the top of the fourth inning. With the Phillies trailing, 4-0, Utley accounted for his team's first run of the season. Down in the count 1-2 to Tim Hudson, Utley crushed a hanging sinker to dead center field for his 200th career home run.
It was a milestone that did not matter to him on a night his team lost.
An inning later, Utley trimmed the Braves' three-run lead to a run and ended Hudson's outing with a two-run single to right field.
Two innings after that, Utley hit a ball into the gap in right-center and legged it into a triple. He came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with an opportunity to become the first Phillies player to hit for the cycle since David Bell in 2004.
That, of course, never crossed his mind.
"Not one bit," he said. "I'm trying to get on base and trying to hit the ball hard."
He popped up to shortstop against closer Craig Kimbrel for the second out of the inning and a few moments later the Phillies were saddled with their first loss of the season.
Their star second baseman could not prevent it, but the long-term benefits should be great for the Phillies.
"When Ut is on, he's still a real good player," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Tonight, he had a real good night and that's great and I'm really happy for him. I'm sure that's going to play a big part in our success down the road."
Nobody on the Phillies roster has to spend more time preparing to play the game than Utley. He stretches for an hour to get ready for the team stretch. He stretches some more just before game time.
It's a grueling routine.
"When I really first got into it years ago, it was much more difficult because I wasn't used to doing it," Utley said during spring training. "Now, it's obviously part of my routine, so it's a little bit easier, but it's still not the most pleasant thing to do every day."
The pleasure for Utley comes in performing at a high level and winning. He had to settle for one of the two on opening night at Turner Field, but he was not surprised by his personal performance.
"I feel strong," Utley said. "I still think there's room for improvement and that's the big thing."
If Utley can improve on his first opening-day game in three years, it will be truly good news for the Phillies.
Contact Bob Brookover at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @brookob.