The final hurdle to rejoining the Phillies is now directly in front of Chase Utley.
The team announced Monday night that the second baseman will officially begin a minor-league rehab assignment by playing Tuesday night for the single-A Clearwater Threshers at Bright House Field.
Utley, out since the start of the season because of chronic soreness in both his knees, will serve as a designated hitter in Clearwater's Florida State League game against the Tampa Yankees. The start of Utley's rehab comes nine days after he went to Clearwater and played in two extended spring-training games over a three-day period.
He had five hits, including two home runs, in the two extended games, but he did not play second base in either game. He will, of course, have to play in the field during his minor-league rehab assignment in order to prove he is ready to rejoin the Phillies.
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A minor-league rehab assignment can last up to 20 days for a position player, which means Utley can play until July 1 at various Phillies minor-league levels before rejoining the team. He can also return sooner than that. If he were to experience a setback during the rehab, the clock can be stopped.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he was comfortable with Utley's rehab beginning now even though he has yet to play second base.
"Yeah, because he's taking ground balls and feeling a little bit better each day," Amaro said. "If he has a setback, he has a setback, but right now he feels good enough to start. He'll start off as a DH and obviously he'll progress to the field at some point."
Utley played only at single-A Clearwater during his minor-league rehab last season and it's possible the same scenario will play out again this year. Amaro is more concerned with the amount of work the second baseman gets than where he gets it.
"He's got to get enough defensive innings where he's comfortable physically and has a rhythm in the field," Amaro said. "He also needs enough at-bats to be comfortable and in a rhythm at the plate. I'm glad he's started and, unless there is an issue, he should be able to help us in the early part of July."
The general manager has also been encouraged by Ryan Howard's progress in Clearwater, where the first baseman is trying to build enough strength in his left leg to return from Achilles tendon surgery and the infection that shut him down during spring training.
"He's really made good strides the last week or so," Amaro said. "He doesn’t have the explosive moves necessary to run the bases, but he is running and fielding and doing all the necessary baseball stuff that will get him back on the field.
"It's going to be a long, long time until he's 100-percent back. That might not be back before this year is over, but he's going to gain enough strength over the next several weeks to be a productive player."
Polanco close to returning
Amaro said third baseman Placido Polanco visited hand specialist Randall Culp Monday and received a positive report on his injured left wrist and cut left index finger. Polanco also took batting practice at Citizens Bank Park.
"He's feeling much better and depending on how he feels (Tuesday), he may be available," Amaro said.
The Phillies open a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins Tuesday at Target Field.