Chase Utley hopes to play next week

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley is so private about his injuries that players on other teams ask reporters for updates on the five-time All-Star.

Good luck with that.

Utley still hasn't played in a game for the Philadelphia Phillies this spring because of a chronic knee condition that forced him to miss the first 46 games last year. He's not participating in team fielding drills or taking grounders during batting practice, but is hitting.

Utley, however, may be getting closer to seeing action, though he wouldn't use those words.

"I'd like to play in a game next week," Utley said Saturday.

The tight-lipped second baseman hadn't spoken to reporters since his first week in camp. He's the toughest guy to find in the clubhouse or anywhere at the practice complex. Not that it matters because he doesn't say much when he talks.

Cornered after the Phillies beat Toronto 4-3 in 10 innings, Utley gave a slight update on his progress.

Asked if he could be ready for the season opener on April 5, Utley said: "That's the goal."

As for infield work, he's hopeful to do that soon.

"I'm making progressions to get to that point," he said. "I'd like to do that at some point next week."

Utley said it was his decision to back off after playing in the field when camp opened.

"There's been some ups and downs. There's parts that are really positive," he said. "Today, I felt pretty good."

Utley didn't play any games last spring because of his injured right knee. Anxious fans are worried, and manager Charlie Manuel has acknowledged he's concerned.

"I'm always concerned with him, but I feel once we get him where we want him to be, I think he's going to play," Manuel said. "I don't know exactly when that will be."

Whenever he returns, it's become apparent that Utley will have to deal with this knee problem perhaps the rest of his career.

"Basically his injury is not going to go away and he has to get ready," Manuel said. "His problem is not going away. More than likely, it will maybe never go away. I only go on what the doctors and trainers tell me. Is it better some days than others? Evidently it must be. That's what they tell me."

There's no definite solution to fix Utley's knee. He was diagnosed last February with patellar tendinitis, bone inflammation and chondromalacia, which is pain due to irritation under the kneecap. Surgery didn't guarantee a cure, so he opted for rehab instead and played through pain when he came back.

"We have to get him to the point where he's taking ground balls regularly and doing those things before we get him into games," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

There's still plenty of time left on the exhibition schedule for Utley to get ready. The team has said seven to 10 games should be enough, meaning Utley doesn't have to play before next Sunday to reach that minimum.

"I think as we see things right now, he's going to get enough at-bats and playing time," Amaro said. "We have to get him to the point where he's starting to get on the field, he's not there yet."

When Utley comes back, his regular spot as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup will be waiting for him. Utley's production has declined the last few seasons, and he batted second in the postseason with Hunter Pence hitting third. But Manuel doesn't see any other options, especially with Ryan Howard out indefinitely.

"Chase Utley is our three-hole hitter," Manuel said. "When he's well and ready to play, he's our three-hole hitter. He's the best three-hole hitter we got. He's the one guy on our team that works the count. He has a high on-base percentage and when he's healthy, he's definitely a (RBI) guy and he knows how to run the bases. He's our three-hole hitter. Can he hit second? Yeah. He can hit fourth."

Utley batted just .259 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs in 103 games last year, and his batting average and slugging percentage have dropped each season since 2007.

The 33-year-old Utley once was one of the best all-around players in the majors. He batted .301 and averaged 29 homers and 101 RBIs between 2005-09. Those numbers dipped to .267, 14 homers and 54 RBIs in the last two seasons. Of course, injuries have played a role in the slippage. He missed 47 games in 2010 when he had hand surgery, and 59 games last year.