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Utley heads to Clearwater for big next step

Utley heads to Clearwater for big next step

Utley heads to Clearwater for big next step
PHILADELPHIA -- Chase Utley is taking the next step.

The second baseman is headed to Clearwater, Fla., where he could play an extended spring training game as early as Monday. He hopes to rejoin the Phillies sooner rather than later, but only he knows for sure, and on Sunday, he offered no timetable for his return from a chronically injured left knee that has kept him sidelined since he flied out to deep center field in the ninth inning in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series.

"I don't have a timeframe," he said during an unexpected announcement in front of his locker following a 5-1 loss to the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. "My whole goal is to feel comfortable and feel like I can contribute on a daily basis. I'm excited. I'm not happy I'm in this position, but I'm excited that I'm feeling better and I have an opportunity to go down and keep working and kind of advance how things are going here."

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Utley's health has been a mystery since Spring Training. The Phillies said he would be ready to start the season on time, but he stopped participating in fielding practice the second week of camp and instead spent the first month of the season working with a physical therapist in Phoenix. He rejoined the team May 5 with the expectation he would take ground balls for a week or two before heading to Clearwater.

It took longer than expected.

Utley offered an explanation.

"Ground balls, early on, one day it was good, the next day it wasn't so good," he 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."

Utley can play in extended spring training games before he begins an official rehab assignment. There are extended spring games Monday through Wednesday and June 12-14. In between, Utley can play in simulated games or work out with other players in camp, such as Ryan Howard and Michael Martinez, and he can begin a rehab assignment at any point.

Once Utley begins to play in rehab games, he has 20 days to rejoin the Phillies, unless he suffers a setback or the Phils simply decide he's not healthy enough to return.

Utley played in just nine rehab games last season before rejoining the team. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said recently he expects Utley to play in more games this time.

"We'll have to see," Utley said. "I didn't swing the bat that great initially last year. My whole goal is to feel comfortable not only in the batter's box, but on the field, as well."

Utley had the worst year of his career offensively since he established himself as the best offensive second baseman in baseball. He hit just .259 with 11 home runs, 44 RBIs and a .769 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 454 plate appearances in 2011. But coincidentally or not, the Phillies averaged 3.8 runs per game while he was injured and 4.6 runs per game upon his return to the lineup.

The Phillies would love to see a similar spike this time.

It seems possible Utley and Howard both could return before the All-Star break, perhaps giving the Phillies the boost they need to finally get out of last place in the National League East and make the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.

Utley will be the designated hitter initially in Clearwater before trying to play in the field.

Playing in the field is the true test.

"My goal is just to feel comfortable and be fairly pain-free," Utley said. "When you get on the field here, the lights are brighter and the adrenaline flows a little bit more. You can do more things."

But can Utley ever be truly pain-free? Or is this something he will have to play through the remainder of his career?

"My goal is to get it to that point," he said. "Only time will tell. But right now I feel confident enough to move to the next step. ... I felt good for probably the last 10 days or so. Knock on wood hopefully that continues."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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