CLEARWATER, Fla. - Nearly nine years have passed since Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins first stepped on the field together.
It was April 24, 2003, and the Phillies were still playing their home games in Veterans Stadium.
Utley, a 24-year-old rookie, hit a grand slam off Aaron Cook for his first big-league hit that day. Rollins, also 24 but a far more experienced player, had three hits, and the Phillies beat the Colorado Rockies, 9-1.
That was the beginning of what would blossom into the best double-play combination in franchise history, although it would be a stretch to say the two are still going strong.
If Rollins and Utley play in 119 games together this season, they will become the first Phillies doubleplay duo to reach 1,000 games together. The two are aware, however, that it has been quite a while since they played 119 games together in a season.
"Hey, Chase," Rollins called over to his double-play partner last week in the Bright House Field clubhouse. "When is the last time we had 119 together?"
"'07 or '08, somewhere around there, I think," Utley answered.
It actually has not been that long. The two played 139 games together in 2009, and the Phillies, of course, went to the World Series. In the two seasons since, however, Rollins and Utley have played a total of 120 games together.
As much conversation as there has been about the Phillies' changing their hitting approach in this camp, it would be of far greater value to the offense if Rollins and Utley could stay on the field at the same time, especially since first baseman Ryan Howard is going to be out for an extended period.
"I don't like to say nothing about our first couple months of our season because I don't want to send one of our bench players a negative message, but when you have big-name guys out of your starting lineup . . . I'd say that plays a little bit of a part in your team," manager Charlie Manuel said.
Manuel also correctly pointed out that, with the help of great pitching, the Phillies have survived and even thrived during the long-term losses of Rollins and Utley the last two seasons. That does not mean the Phillies want to go through it again in 2012.
"That is two of the heads of this team when we're off the field," Rollins said. "When we're on the field we feel like we can have some kind of effect on the outcome of the game. It doesn't mean you're going to get the big hit all the time. It doesn't mean you're going to make the big play all the time. But you can make a switch on a defensive call or direct traffic. There are little things that we can put our fingerprints on because we've been out there. If we're not in there, it can be detrimental in that regard. Fortunately, we have had guys step in and cover some of that."
Even though Rollins and Utley have missed so much time because of injuries the last two seasons, they are still one of the best active double-play combinations in baseball. According to STATS L.L.C., the only current duo that has played more regular-season games together is Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, with 915.
If you were ranking double-play duos, you'd put Jeter and Cano and Texas' Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus ahead of Rollins and Utley, but a strong argument can be made that the Phillies' pair is still the best in the National League when healthy.
"I think they're in that conversation of one of the best ever," said Ryne Sandberg, the Phils' triple-A manager at Lehigh Valley. "They both have years to play, so they can add on to that if they want to. They can always improve as long as they're healthy and on the field."
Sandberg, a Hall of Fame second baseman, had a longtime partner in Shawon Dunston with the Chicago Cubs - they played 958 games together, according to STATS L.L.C. - and Sandberg is a student of great DP combinations.
"Today's game is a little bit different because players come and go a little bit quicker," Sandberg said. "But these guys are original Phillies, and they have been mainstays here, so that's something that is great for the organization.
"In the old-school days, it was the norm to have great DP combinations. Larry Bowa and Manny Trillo here. Dave Concepcion and Joe Morgan with the Reds. Bill Russell and Davey Lopes with the Dodgers. I used to follow Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in Detroit to see how Shawon and I compared to them. It gave us something to shoot for."
What Rollins and Utley are shooting for in 2012 are healthy seasons because they know if they can get to 1,000 games together, chances are it's going to be a good thing for the Phillies.
"We've been out there quite a bit together, and we've learned how to play fairly well together, to say the least," Utley said. "We do a good job of knowing where to position ourselves, and we continue to talk about that. I don't know how many games we've played together, but we're still trying to improve. I think we've come up with a pretty good idea of how we need to play in order to win."
Inside the Phillies: Double-play combos
Here is one man's opinion of the top five double-play combinations in franchise history.
SECOND BASEMAN / SHORTSTOP YEARS TOGETHER
1. 2B Chase Utley / SS Jimmy Rollins 2003-2012
2. 2B Manny Trillo / SS Larry Bowa 1979-1981
3. 2B Dave Cash / SS Larry Bowa 1974-1976
4. 2B Tony Taylor / SS Bobby Wine 1962-1965
5. 2B Otto Knabe / SS Mickey Doolin 1907-1913
- Bob Brookover
Contact Bob Brookover at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @brookob.