CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley isn't back at second base yet, and he admits he's still a work in progress at the plate right now. But as far as he's concerned, every step he's taken the last three days has been a step in the right direction.
Utley played his third full game for Class A Clearwater as the designated hitter on Thursday night, going 0-for-3 with two walks, and hustling from first to third on a single in the fifth inning. He has been sidelined since the end of the 2011 season with chronic left knee issues, and, barring any further injuries during this rehab assignment, will return to the Phillies by no later than July 2.
"The knee's feeling good," said Utley. "No issues whatsoever running the bases, so that, to me, is a definite positive."
The biggest test will come when Utley plays second base, especially for a full game, but he believes he's getting close to that point. The Threshers will be off until Monday due to the Florida State League All-Star Game, so he will take ground balls and get at-bats by joining teammate Ryan Howard in extended spring training games this weekend.
Asked whether he could play second when Clearwater resumes games next week, Utley said it's a "possibility," but he wouldn't say if there was a specific day or plan in mind.
"We've still got to talk about it, but I'm itching to get out there," Utley said. "We've made some strides the last week or so, and hopefully pretty soon. ... We've pushed it the past week, and it's responded well. As long as it continues like that, I plan to be out there pretty soon."
Utley isn't concerned about the numbers he's put up so far. He has only one hit in 13 at-bats, and the two walks on Thursday night were his first on the rehab assignment. He drove in a run on a fielder's choice Wednesday night.
Thursday night might have been his most productive outing of the three. He flied out to center in his first at-bat, grounded out to second on the second pitch of his next trip to the plate, drew walks in the fifth and sixth innings then flied out to right-center field to lead off the eighth.
"It's a work in progress, trying to create as much comfort and as much timing at the plate as we can at this point," Utley said. "Obviously, you want results, but I think you have to look at it as trying to create some timing and seeing some pitches, being able to recognize them, trying to put some good swings on the ball. Results aren't as important right now as they will be in the future."
And when, exactly, will he be back playing in Major League games? Utley isn't sure. He played only nine rehab games last season, and the assumption is that he'll require more this time around, especially since he's yet to play defense. But he said he'll definitely know when he's ready to head back to Philadelphia.
"As soon as I feel comfortable enough and my knees feel comfortable, I'm out of here," he said.