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04/23/12 10:36 PM ET

Ever so briefly, Utley rejoins Phillies

Rehabbing in Phoenix, he practices before game vs. D-backs

PHOENIX -- Chase Utley must have been feeling pretty good Monday at Chase Field.

He smiled a few times.

Utley has been on the disabled list since the season started because of chondromalacia in his left knee. He has been rehabbing here for the past three weeks, and joined the Phillies before their series opener against the D-backs. Utley reported no pain in his knee while he took batting practice. He said he felt some pain while fielding ground balls, although Monday was the first time he had done it.

But he was encouraged.

"It went well today," Utley said. "I was able to hit on the field, which was nice for a change. It's been a while since I've done that. No pain whatsoever, which in my opinion is a positive sign."

Utley said he had not been pain-free while hitting since last season.

And the pain while fielding?

"Still getting used to it in the field," he said. "Overall, it's much improved since the end of Spring Training."

Of course, there are two big questions about Utley.

When will he be back?

Will he be productive once he is back?

Utley said in March he had less pain in his left knee than he had in his right knee at that point last year. Utley returned to action May 23 last season. So does that mean Utley could be back before June 1 this season? The Phillies certainly could use him. The offense has been abysmal, scoring two or fewer runs in 10 of their first 16 games.

"I'd like to be back right now," Utley said. "I have to listen to my body and right now it's telling me to continue to move forward with the things I'm doing. I don't want to put a certain date on it because I don't want to force something that's not ready to happen. When my knee is ready to go, I'll be out there."

The Phillies improved offensively almost immediately upon Utley's return last year, although he had the worst season of his career. His .769 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last season would have ranked 77th out of 146 hitters had he qualified for the statistic.

"I think the whole thing is trying to get my legs stronger and if I continue to build on that I think I'll be all right," Utley said.

That is why Utley is not rushing himself.

"There's still some things I need to do to get ready to play games," he said. "But I think we're right on track. ... So far, on a daily basis, I've been feeling good. I haven't had to slow things down. Being here for a little longer will benefit me. At some point I'll meet with the team and continue to do more baseball stuff with the team. Then we'll see what happens."

Strengthening Utley's legs is important. Last year at this time he worked more on flexibility and stretching and it probably cost him a lot of his power.

"I was doing a little bit of it last year," he said of strength exercises. "Right now I'm doing a little bit more. It's only been three weeks, but I feel a lot stronger than I did three weeks ago. I think another few weeks of doing strength stuff would be beneficial. ... I think my legs are actually stronger than they were last year. Last year, I went with the mindset of getting everything loose and not trying to make my legs tight. Right now, we're trying to gain strength and continue to keep my legs loose."

Utley will remain with the team through Wednesday, then stay here and continue his work with physical therapist Brett Fischer. Utley has spending five to six hours a day working at Fischer's facility.

The sooner Utley returns the better for the Phillies. They desperately need him, but they also need him healthy once he returns.

He thinks he is on his way.

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