Utley, Hamilton, Cruz, Thome back from DL

Look who's back! In the spirit of enthusiasm that several players returning from the disabled list brought to their clubs, we focus on only the positive today. Amid the departure of numerous players this spring because of injury or ineffectiveness, it's a welcome sight to see some who are actually making their way back into the lineup.

And their collective entrance was nothing short of dramatic.

Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies

The injury: Patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia -- in short, inflammation of the patellar tendon (the broad, flat tendon that anchors the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh to the shinbone) and weakening of cartilage

Date of injury: There is no specific date one can pinpoint as to when Utley's knee troubles began, but he was bothered by the knee early in spring training and was forced to start the season on the disabled list. He sat out the first 46 games of the season before making his much-anticipated return Monday.

How he fared in his return: Utley went 0-for-5, but that might not have been the takeaway message from the evening. Clearly, he provided an inspirational spark for his team -- which scored 10 runs even as he went hitless -- and for the fans, who greeted him with a standing ovation. Everyone seemed to understand just how hard he has toiled to even be able to get back on a big league field. Utley acknowledged as much, telling reporters, "I put in a lot of hard work to get to this point," adding, "I'm just happy to be out there."

Expectations/concerns going forward: The most obvious concern is how Utley's knee will hold up to the rigors of regular play. When Utley first began his rehab assignment, we outlined the challenges he would face as he deals with a chronic condition. Management, not only of his condition but also of his playing time, will be a factor. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, general manager Ruben Amaro and manager Charlie Manuel have come to an agreement about not overworking Utley now that he is back in the mix. "He gets it," Amaro said of Manuel. "He understands that. Shoot, I'd like to have Chase playing every minute of every game, too. But at the same time, I'd rather have Chase at 100 percent for 80 percent of the games than 60 percent for 100 percent of the games. So I think Charlie understands that." That's the thing with chronic conditions; the symptoms can subside but the source of the symptoms doesn't disappear. Staying a step ahead of a flare-up is critical. Utley's return to the playing field was a big accomplishment. If Utley lasts through the season, it will dwarf what he has already done.

Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers

The injury: Fractured right humerus (arm bone which runs from shoulder to elbow); the injury was to Hamilton's nondominant (non-throwing) arm

Date of injury: April 12, in what was to become a much-discussed headfirst slide into home plate.

How he fared in his return: Most would agree that hitting a home run in one's first at-bat after a six-week stint on the DL could be deemed successful. The smile on Hamilton's face as he rounded the bases and the greeting he got from his teammates when he arrived home confirmed it.

Expectations/Concerns going forward: The primary issue after a fracture is ensuring proper bone repair. Hamilton originally was projected to be out six to eight weeks, but the healing in his arm progressed quickly. When a CT scan at five weeks post-injury confirmed the bone showed "significant healing," Hamilton was given the green light to progress to a rehab assignment. The secondary issue after this type of injury is regaining the strength of the muscles around the shoulder, as well as the coordination, timing and power involved in swinging the bat. Hamilton's quicker healing progression and shortened downtime translated into less deconditioning. Hamilton did acknowledge being a little anxious in his early rehab at-bats. After his first rehab outing, Hamilton told ESPN Dallas, "My first at-bat [a groundout], I was a little jumpy. I was a little nervous because I haven't hit in so long." His timing, however, was better than expected, and his arm didn't bother him at all. According to Hamilton, the most soreness he experienced upon his return was, "more in my lower back and foot from standing in cleats for four hours." From the perspective of the fracture itself, the injury appears to be behind him and the delay it sometimes takes to return to power appears to be a non-issue. Now, fans will simply have to hope that the hard-driving outfielder manages to avoid suffering yet another injury, something that has proved challenging for him in the past.

Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers

The injury: Strained right quadriceps (front of the thigh)

Date of injury: May 3. Initially, Cruz said he did not think a trip to the DL would be necessary, but, within four days of the injury, the (wise) decision was made to make the move.

How he fared in his return: Keeping up with his teammate Josh Hamilton on Monday, Cruz also delivered a home run in his first game back.

Expectations/Concerns going forward: The worry with Cruz -- and it was a concern heading into this season -- is his history of leg injuries. For instance, Cruz made three trips to the DL in 2010 because of hamstring injuries. This was not likely his last muscle strain, but the Rangers have to hope that it was his last for a while.

Jim Thome, DH, Minnesota Twins:

The injury: Left oblique/low back strain

Date of injury: Late April. Thome appeared as if he would try to play through the injury early on but ultimately could not, and he was moved to the DL.

How he fared in his return: Apparently, "home runs for returning players" was trending Monday night, and Thome decided he would deliver two.

Expectations/Concerns going forward: At 40 years old, Thome's day-to-day durability might be the biggest concern, but limiting him to DH duties goes a long way toward maintaining his health. When a slugger returns from an oblique injury, the concern often is whether he'll be able to hit for power immediately. Thome's two long balls ought to have answered that question.

Rafael Furcal, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers

The injury: Broken left thumb

Date of injury: April 11, another victim of the headfirst slide.

How he fared in his return: Furcal struggled in Sunday's return, going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. He was able to improve to 1-for-4 on Monday.

Expectations/Concerns going forward: The thumb fracture has healed, but it might take additional time for Furcal to get his rhythm back swinging from both sides of the plate. The good news is that the downtime allowed him to work extensively on his conditioning. Because Furcal has a significant history of back problems, all the legwork is a bonus, and he noted how good the rest of his body is feeling now. Give him a little time to get back in the groove, and his numbers should pick up within the next couple of weeks.