Chase Utley’s inside-the-park home run [video]

This is the entire at-bat. Pay special attention to the 3-1 pitch. They call it the most exciting play in baseball, and I’d have to agree…

Good things happen when you mention Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.

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Phillies to activate Chase Utley on Monday

Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley walks across the field after taking batting practice before a spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida, March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki tweets that the Phillies will activate second baseman Chase Utley (knee) from the disabled list before Monday’s game against the Reds.

Here’s the tweet:

Orr optioned. Utley activated tomorrow. Blanton on DL tomorrow. Worley will be activated.

Utley batted .281 with one home run in 36 plate appearances for High-A Clearwater during his minor league rehab stint. More importantly than the numbers was the fact that his knee has felt good.

It’s an understatement that the Phillies need this guy back in their lineup. They’re 23rd in runs scored, 22nd in on base percentage and 18th in batting average. In their last nine games, they’ve averaged less than two runs per outing (17 total). Over 107 at bats this season, Wilson Valdez is hitting just .231 with nine RBI and has an OBP of .259 filling in for Utley at second base. Simply put, that’s not going to get it done.

Utley may not come off the disabled list scorching, but as long as he stays healthy he’ll get his swing back. He’s going to need 50-plus at bats against major league pitching to kind of figure things out, but he’s the consummate professional. This is the shot in the arm that the Phillies’ offense has needed.

Five teams that could come up short in 2011

Philadelphia Phillies starter Roy Halladay pitches against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning of a MLB spring training game at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida, March 21, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

It’s the start of a new year and you know what that means: Expectations are running high for every club not named the Pirates and Royals. (Or Astros, Cubs, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Nationals or Indians for that matter.)

But what postseason contenders are most likely to fall short of expectations in 2011? I’ve highlighted five below.

Philadelphia Phillies
When a team is hyped for an entire offseason, it almost becomes cliché to say that they’ll fall short of expectations. But in the case of the Phillies, there’s some major concern here. It’s impossible to replace Chase Utley’s production in the lineup and this is an aging roster. Yes, the Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels/Blanton combination will keep most opposing batters up at night and yes, the Phillies will probably win the NL East. But the Braves aren’t too far behind talent-wise and Philadelphia has become a club that starts off slow only to pick it up in the second half. If Atlanta comes out of the gates hot and the Phillies suffer some early-season hiccups without Utley, the Braves might be able to build a decent lead that they can ride throughout the season. Barring injury to Halladay or Lee, I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Phillies don’t make the playoffs this year. But without Utley, the playing field has definitely been leveled in the National League.

San Francisco Giants
This is an easy one. It’s been 10-straight years since the last time any team was able to repeat as World Series champions. And while the G-Men aren’t considered the favorites to win this year’s Fall Classic (that would be the Phillies or Red Sox), many pundits believe that, at the very least, they’ll win the NL West again. A World Series hangover is the Giants’ biggest concern, because this club is better now than it was a year ago. They’ll get a full year out of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the energetic Andres Torres will serve as the leadoff hitter from Day 1 (instead of the highly unproductive Aaron Rowand), Pablo Sandoval looks like he’s ready for a big bounce back campaign, top prospect Brandon Belt might start the year with the big league club after dominating this spring, and Mark DeRosa, Mike Fontenot and Pat Burrell strengthen the bench. But it’s a different game for the Giants now. They’re going to be the hunted instead of the hunters, at least in the NL West. Can this fun-loving team recapture the same magic it had in September and October last year? Or will all of those extra innings that Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez endured in the postseason last year eventually catch up with this team?

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How will Chase Utley’s injury affect the Phillies in 2011?

Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley walks across the field after taking batting practice before a spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida, March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

The unsurprising happened on Thursday: Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. confirmed that second baseman Chase Utley will begin the season on the disabled list.

The thought of beginning the year without Utley is something the Phillies have been bracing for all spring. He hasn’t seen the field once yet in exhibition and with Opening Day only a week away, him starting the year on the DL was the most likely outcome.

Replacing Utley in the lineup is an impossible task. The Phillies recently signed Luis Castillo (formerly of the Mets), but he went 0-for-4 in his Philadelphia debut and may not even make the team if he continues to hit around .250 this spring. Of course, the other candidates to take Utley’s spot don’t look any better. Wilson Valdez is hitting just .239 is a 32-year-old journeyman who has only played in 247 major league games since making his first appearance in ‘04, while Josh Barfield has showed his versatility this spring but he’s still behind Valdez on the depth chart.

As of right now, the Phillies aren’t saying when Utley will return because quite frankly, they probably don’t even know. If he winds up missing the rest of the season, the loss of him and Jayson Werth (Nationals) gives the rest of Philly’s offense a small margin for error. Given that Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino are coming off poor seasons and Placido Polanco and Rual Ibanez are in the twilights of their careers, this is going to be a huge year for Ryan Howard (who must carry the offense).

So what happens to the Phillies’ chances of winning the World Series? Thanks to their loaded pitching staff, they’re still the clear favorites in the NL. But the Braves are a big threat in the division and there’s a certain championship team out West that treated Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt like mortals in the postseason last year.

Of course, the Giants won the World Series last year with pitching and the Phillies have more offense than San Fran did – even without Utley. But the Giants’ hitters also got extremely hot at the right time and this is a Philadelphia club that has been known to come out of the gates slow before picking it up in the second half. Considering they might not have Utley all season, they better kick it into gear right away. Without Utley roaming second base in Philadelphia, the playing field certainly evens out more in the National League.

Rangers willing to eat about half of Young’s contract, could Phillies be a potential suitor?

Former U.S. president George W. Bush (L) greets Texas Rangers Michael Young (R) before his at-bat against the Los Angeles Angels in the first inning of their MLB baseball game in Arlington, Texas, July 25, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Sharp (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL POLITICS)

Given Chase Utley’s knee injury, don’t rule out the possibility that the Phillies could make a move for the disgruntled Michael Young, whom the Rangers are still trying to trade.

According to Yahoo Sports! Tim Brown, the Rangers are trying their best to move Young and are “willing to eat about half” of the $48 million that still remains on the infielder’s contract. Brown tweets that Texas is still asking for top-end prospects, but nobody is biting.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have a huge concern on their hands with Utley. There’s a chance that the second baseman will be sidelined for a lengthy period of time, maybe even the season. Seeing as how Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been the picture of perfect health himself over the last couple of years, scooping up a six-time All-Star and a career .300-hitter like Young wouldn’t be a bad move. If the Rangers were willing to eat half of his contract then hey, even better.

In the end, it doesn’t look like Texas will get what it wants for Young and if his situation is going to be a distraction throughout the year, then there’s no sense hanging onto him. I think it was wise of Nolan Ryan and Co. to be patient this spring and let the situation develop. But we’re about a week and a half away from Opening Day and it might be time to press teams in order to see what they’d be willing to give up. Calling someone like the Phillies who could be entering panic mode would be a good start.

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