What is a reasonable expectation for Chase Utley's return?

Chase Utley is on his way to Clearwater to participate in extended spring training. (Yong Kim/Staff photo)

The news after the game overshadowed the actual game, an eminently forgettable one. As reporters shuffled through a quiet Phillies clubhouse to talk to Juan Pierre, the only offensive player who did anything of value Sunday, Chase Utley stood at his locker in baseball pants and his customary undershirt. A team official said, "Go to Chase." And that's when Utley volunteered to talk about his next step.

Utley expects to play in an extended spring training game Monday in Clearwater, Fla. He will not play the field; instead being the designated hitter is the first task. He can bat as many times as he wants in these pseudo games. It's a chance to see live pitching and simulate game action for the first time since Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series. 

An extended spring training game is nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. The Phillies can have Utley bat as many times as they'd like. He can play the field, or take an inning off, do whatever.

For 10 days, Utley said, his chronically injured knees have "felt good."

"Ground balls, early on, one day it was good the next day it wasn’t so good," Utley said. "Right now on a daily basis they've been feeling pretty good. It’s still not perfect yet, but I think we're getting there, we’re on the verge of getting a lot better. I wanted to take this opportunity to get down there, get some at-bats, kind of get a head start in that aspect."

He put no timetable on a potential return. Ruben Amaro Jr. has said he believes it would benefit Utley to spend more time in Florida than he did last season during his recovery. So let's use that as a comparison.

Utley played his first extended spring game May 7, 2011. He played another May 9 and then abruptly began an official rehab assignment with single-A Clearwater on May 10. He spent 11 days with the Threshers and played in his first big-league game May 23.

So it was 16 days from extended spring to the majors a season ago. A similar period would put him on track to return June 19, which coincidentally begins a 10-game homestand. But Amaro said last week he does not believe Utley would play before the end of June. And all indications are Utley will take more time than he did in 2011.

Even so, he still looks like a sure bet to play before the All-Star break. Extended spring training ends June 14. One he starts an official rehab assignment, a 20-day clock begins ticking. So if he starts it as late as June 15, the latest he could return is July 5. That's four games before the break. Here's guessing it happens well before that.

Utley's knees obviously suffered as the 2011 season concluded. He has focused on not only reducing pain, but strengthening his lower half.

"They're definitely stronger at this point," he said. "I'll keep continuing to build them and get them stronger than they are now."

And no, his presence alone will not save the Phillies. But it sure can't hurt. 

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