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02/19/09 4:46 PM EST

Utley optimistic about Opening Day

Phillies star feeling no pain in surgically repaired right hip

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chase Utley looks around the Bright House Field clubhouse, sees players like Ryan Howard and Brett Myers at least 20 pounds lighter than last season and considers it a good sign.

It shows his Phillies teammates are committed to defending their World Series title.

"It would be very easy to look back on last season and say, 'We're the world champions,' and sit on it," Utley said Thursday. "I don't think we've done that. You look at Ryan and Brett. Those two names come off the top of my head. Those two look unbelievable. Brett looks like a new person, and Ryan looks really strong and scary, so it just goes to show that we're determined and we do have room for improvement. I do think that we played well last year, but I still think we can play better."

Consider Utley for a moment.

He hit .292 with 33 home runs and 104 RBIs last season. Countless players would kill for a season like that, but Utley battled an injury to his right hip for much of 2008, and that injury might have sapped some of his power the second half of the season.

Utley had surgery on the hip Nov. 24, with a full recovery expected to take anywhere from four to six months. Should he come back healthy, it stands to reason that he could be even better in 2009.

But can he?

First, he needs to get back on the field. Utley has been taking fielding practice at the Carpenter Complex. He has also been hitting off a practice tee for several days and just started hitting soft toss a few days ago. Should Utley be able to continue to swing a bat without pain, he said he expects to begin taking batting practice in the near future.

So will he be in the lineup by Opening Day?

It is too early to say. Too much can happen between now and Opening Day on April 5.

But ...

"I think it's pretty realistic at this point," Utley said. "We've pushed it over the past week and a half, two weeks that I've been down here, and it's responded extremely well. We're not overdoing it yet, but we are putting it to a good pace, and I think we are all pretty comfortable with it.

"I would say my chances right now -- I don't want to jinx myself -- are fair to quite fair."

Utley kept his ailing hip as quiet as possible last season. It's not his style to talk about his injuries. He also said he didn't want to become a distraction. So it will be best this spring to actually see what Utley does on the field rather than listen to what he has to say.

That will be the best indicator of how he is coming along.

"I am extremely eager to get out there," Utley said. "I always enjoy this time, coming down to Spring Training and starting back again. But I realize there are seven weeks to go, and that's a lot of time -- a lot of time to get some work in. I'm not overly concerned at this point. I think we'll be OK. ... I'm a fairly competitive person, so I definitely want to be out there on the field, but I do understand that I'm not quite ready to take that step yet. But we are making strides to get to that step."

Utley has been a hard man to find these days for that very reason. He gets to the ballpark early, eats breakfast, then hits the training room or weight room. He participates in most of the team's Spring Training drills, but is back doing work afterward.

"It takes a lot of time," Utley said. "It's a little repetitious, a little tedious, but it's something that we have to continue to do."

But the good news so far is that Utley has suffered no setbacks.

He has felt no pain.

"I mean, I can manipulate it into a position where it is sore, but I imagine we can all do that with our legs," Utley said. "I'm really optimistic at this point."

He is optimistic about the Phillies' chances in 2009, too.

"We showed we can play with the best teams in baseball last year," Utley said. "We're going to continue with that same mind-set, and hopefully that works out."

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