Oswalt Back? Utley Rebound? Charlie Looking For Bats Crushing Balls

Oswalt remains unsigned; Philly return possible

By Todd Zolecki / MLB.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Roy Oswalt remains a free agent, and his agent said Thursday that Oswalt might wait to sign until later in the season.

Don’t be surprised if the Phillies make a run at him, if they need him.

Roy Oswalt

While there are multiple reports Oswalt’s top two choices are the Cardinals and Rangers, a source told MLB.com on Thursday that Oswalt also is very interested in returning to Philadelphia. It is not a stretch to think that if something happens to one of the Phils’ starters that Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would sign Oswalt as a replacement.


Hitting foremost on Manuel’s mind this spring

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Charlie Manuel is setting a clear tone for his hitters in Spring Training.

The Phillies manager talked with Jimmy Rollins for more than 15 minutes in his office Thursday, on the eve of the team’s first full-squad workout Friday.

“We talked about how we wanted to play, we talked some about hitting,” Manuel said. “It was good. Jimmy’s always been a good student as far as knowing how to play the game and all about the game, and I felt like before we got going here that I would want to sit down and talk to him.”

Manuel wants his team to take a better approach at the plate, and he wants his hitters to talk more about their hitting during the season. He hopes that will help the Phillies avoid the postseason offensive slumps that played a big role in ending their last two seasons.

“I want to talk to all of our guys,” Manuel said. “I want our guys to talk about hitting. I want guys like Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins and [Ryan] Howard and [Shane] Victorino … I want to have more talk about hitting, talking about getting good balls to hit, not giving away at-bats, things like that.

“With our pitching and everything like that, we need to score the runs that we’re supposed to score. If we have a guy on third base with less than two outs early in the game, we need to score one run. If we have two guys on, we need to make sure we score one run, instead of a guy standing there maybe trying to bust the game open.”

Manuel also confirmed Rollins will be his leadoff hitter this season, which is not a surprise.

Utley has utmost confidence he’ll bounce back

By Todd Zolecki

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies saved arguably the biggest storyline for last.

Almost every day since Spring Training started, the Phillies sent a different player to the media room at Bright House Field for a news conference. Jonathan Papelbon spoke last Friday about leaving the Red Sox and joining the Phillies. Cole Hamels talked Monday about his impending free agency. Roy Halladay spoke Tuesday about his continued pursuit of a World Series championship and his (embellished) encounter with an anaconda on the Amazon River. Ryan Howard talked Wednesday about his recovery from left Achilles surgery.

Chase Utley spoke Thursday.

Chase Utley rounding the bases after hitting a...

Utley could mean the most to the Phillies’ success in 2012. He certainly seems to be the most intriguing player to watch. While Howard’s recovery is important, he might not feel completely like himself until next season. And while Hamels’ future with the Phillies is key, Utley is trying to bounce back from the worst season of his career while playing with a chronic right knee condition.

If Utley bounces back this season, it would be a tremendous boost to the lineup and make the Phillies feel a little better about their future.

If he’s unable to bounce back, it could signal a premature end to one of the best second basemen of his generation.

Naturally, Utley likes his chances of turning around his career.

“I think I can overcome this without a doubt,” Utley said. “I have pride in how I play and the way I play and that’s not going to change.”

But pride can’t overcome an unhealthy body. Utley missed the first 46 games last season because of a chronic knee condition. Utley avoided surgery, which could have ended his career, but he could not keep his legs strong through the rest of the season. The result? He hit just .259 with 11 home runs, 44 RBIs and a .769 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 398 at-bats. Utley showed little of the power he had in the past. His .769 OPS was his worst since his rookie season in 2003.

It was a precipitous fall for Utley. He had a .915 OPS as a first-time everyday second baseman in 2005. It went to .906 in ’06, .976 in ’07, .915 in ’08, .905 in ’09 and .832 in ’10 before dipping under .800 last season.

Utley said he is confident he can return to his All-Star form.

“It feels significantly better,” he said. “Last year, it was very uncomfortable, especially the first week [of Spring Training]. Right now, I think I’m in a good place. The goal for me is to kind of stay in the same place and improve in small increments and not try to irritate it to the point where I’d have to slow down. So we’ll see how it goes.”

Utley changed his offseason workout routine, incorporating more stretching and manual therapy and not as much weightlifting. He tried to make his legs stronger without putting as much strain and pounding on his knees.

“This offseason, I was able to strengthen them, maybe not quite as much as in the past, but they’re definitely stronger than they were going into last year,” Utley said. “My goal now is to maintain that. Ideally, it would be nice to make them stronger, but at the same time, I have to keep them loose and take it easy.”

Utley will have a lighter workload this spring. Fewer hours on the field, maybe fewer games. The whole idea is keeping him as fresh and strong as possible for the season. And even then, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Utley won’t play more than 150 games this season.

“It’s something I’m always going to have to monitor, forever, to be honest,” Utley said of his knee. “But I think I have a game plan put together that I’m able to overcome it. But again, it’s something I’m going to have to deal with on a daily basis, and I’m willing to put the effort into making sure it’s OK.”

Utley struggled so much last season that Manuel finally pulled him from the No. 3 spot in the lineup. It’s likely Utley opens the season back in that spot, but Manuel might be forced to pull him again if he can’t knock in runs like he has in the past.

“It’s always frustrating when you’re not playing well,” Utley said. “Even when I am playing well, I’m still not satisfied. You still have to have that drive on a daily basis and try to figure out ways to help the team win.”

Utley had a chance to help his team in the ninth inning in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He flied out to the warning track, momentarily giving Phillies fans in the ballpark hope that the team might tie the game.

Utley acknowledged there were a few balls last season that he thought he squared up, but couldn’t drive like he had in the past because of his weaker legs.

“I tried not to let it affect me mentally,” he said. “Once you think about it mentally, it’s going to change your approach and make you even more frustrated. And that’s something you don’t want to be. I tried to put it behind me. I tried to take every game the same way, try to find a way to win. Where that’s hitting a home run, getting on base, drawing a walk, getting hit by a pitch, those are the things I try to do on a daily basis.”

His ability to do all those things with regularity will play big in the Phillies’ success in 2012.

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

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