To call the Philadelphia Phillies ' first half a disappointment would be a major understatement, but a good chunk of their struggles can be attributed to some significant injuries.
They're about to get one key piece back.
After missing nearly three months with a knee injury, Chase Utley is expected to make his season debut Wednesday night as the Phillies look for a third straight win over the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates .
Utley sat out most of the first two months last season with right knee tendinitis, then has missed the first 76 games in 2012 for Philadelphia (36-40) because of a deterioration of cartilage in his left knee.
He hit just .156 in nine games at Class-A Clearwater, but seemed a bit more major-league ready Tuesday. In his only scheduled rehab contest with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, the five-time All-Star went 2 for 5 with a home run.
"I'm in a much better place than I was a month ago, and I'm encouraged by that," Utley told the Phillies' official website earlier this week. "I wouldn't be out there if I felt uncomfortable.
"There's no doubt that (my legs) are stronger than they were last year. Having my legs under me is an important part of that. But time will tell."
Utley and Charlie Manuel indicated he'll be worked in somewhat slowly, but Philadelphia's manager isn't hiding where his second baseman will fit in from the get-go.
"Utley is our three-hole hitter," Manuel said. "I think he is the guy that works the count. I think he is the guy that when he's right, he'll hit 25 to 30 homers. I think he is the guy that will hit .300. I think he is the guy that can knock in 100 runs and score 100. That's what I picture Utley to be."
He may not have it easy in his first game back. James McDonald (6-3, 2.19 ERA) is tied for the majors' third-best ERA after holding Minnesota to six hits without allowing a walk in Thursday's 9-1 win, his first career complete game.
"He just comes down and deals," center fielder Andrew McCutchen told the Pirates' official website. "He gives us a chance to score some runs, then keeps us ahead the whole game. He's grown. He's going out there and doing a good job."
McDonald gave up two runs and four hits, including a homer to Hunter Pence , in six innings of the Pirates' 5-4 home win against Philadelphia on April 8. Pence is 7 for 13 off McDonald, while Utley is 2 for 3 with two walks.
Pittsburgh (38-35) came to Philadelphia with the major leagues' third-best staff ERA, but halfway through this series that pitching hasn't looked so good. Jeff Karstens gave up seven runs over the first four innings in an 8-3 loss in Monday's opener, and Erik Bedard gave up all four of his runs in the first three frames of Tuesday's 5-4 defeat.
"In the first two games here, they've played better across the board," manager Clint Hurdle said.
While Utley's return figures to provide an emotional boost for the Phillies, the Pirates should have the edge on the mound. Friday's rainout pushed everyone in Philadelphia's rotation up a day, so Raul Valdes (2-0, 1.84) will make a spot start.
The left-hander has appeared in 12 games out of the bullpen, and his lone major league start came Oct. 2, 2010, with the Mets.
The previous month, Valdes gave up four runs in 1 2-3 innings in his only career appearance against the Pirates, yet earned a fluky win.
He's allowed three hits and no runs or walks while striking out 10 in 9 1-3 innings at Citizens Bank Park this season.
|June 25, 2012||Rod Barajas||Day-to-Day||Left game - bruised left knee|
|May 30, 2012||Charlie Morton||60-Day DL||Right elbow inflammation|
|May 10, 2012||Daniel McCutchen||15-Day DL||Left oblique strain|
|May 10, 2012||Daniel McCutchen||15-Day DL||Left oblique strain|
|May 09, 2012||Erik Bedard||Day-to-Day||Left game - back spasms|
|May 06, 2012||Andrew McCutchen||Day-to-Day||Flu|
|June 07, 2012||Freddy Galvis||15-Day DL||Lower back strain|
|June 05, 2012||Placido Polanco||Day-to-Day||Left game - left index finger laceration|
|June 02, 2012||Jose Contreras||60-Day DL||Torn UCL, right elbow - out for season|
|May 28, 2012||Roy Halladay||15-Day DL||Right latissimus dorsi strain|
|May 16, 2012||Placido Polanco||Day-to-Day||Left knee contusion|
|May 12, 2012||Vance Worley||15-Day DL||Right elbow inflammation|
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Chase Utley did everything to help the Philadelphia Phillies win except pitch middle relief.
Utley homered in his first at-bat of the season, but the Pittsburgh Pirates spoiled his return by connecting three times and beating the Phillies 11-7 Wednesday night.
Michael McKenry hit a three-run homer and Andrew McCutchen and Casey McGehee also went deep for Pittsburgh. The Pirates set season highs for runs and hits (14), all against the Phillies' maligned bullpen.
"It was a good first step, but obviously winning would've been ideal," Utley said.
Utley missed the first 76 games this year because of a chronic problem in both knees. He had three hits, but it wasn't enough on a night the Phillies got more encouraging news about their injured stars.
Former NL MVP Ryan Howard will start a rehab stint on Thursday night and two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay is making progress and could throw off a bullpen mound next week.
Until they're all healthy, it won't be easy for the five-time defending NL East champions.
James McDonald (7-3) allowed four runs and six hits in 5 2-3 innings. It was the first time in 15 starts this season he allowed more than three runs, and his ERA climbed from 2.19 to 2.44.
McKenry drove in a career-best four runs and the Pirates feasted on Philadelphia's pitching.
"I'm not trying to do too much and hit what they give me," McKenry said.
Reliever Raul Valdes (2-1) started for the Phillies, who were out of starters because of a doubleheader Sunday. He allowed three runs and two hits in two innings in his second career start. Joe Savery came in and gave up five runs in 2 2-3 innings. He was optioned to Triple-A after the game.
"There were doubts about our bullpen," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We felt like with what we had in the minors, this could give us more flexibility. But it backfired. We got lit up."
The Phillies entered with a 4.41 bullpen ERA that was 25th in the majors.
"We have to get our bullpen straightened out," Manuel said.
Utley can't help in that department.
The Phillies took a 2-0 lead in the first when Utley and Carlos Ruiz hit back-to-back homers.
Utley drove a 2-2 pitch way out to right-center. He got his third standing ovation in a 15-minute span and came out for a curtain call after circling the bases and getting mobbed by teammates in dugout.
"It was pretty exciting," Utley said. "The fans were awesome and it was nice to hit the ball hard my first at-bat."
Ruiz then hit a drive to left for his 11th homer. That had another sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park buzzing.
It didn't last.
McKenry connected off Valdes in the second to put the Pirates ahead 3-2. McGehee homered off Savery in the fourth and McDonald helped himself with a two-out RBI single to extend the lead to 5-2.
Neil Walker , Jose Tabata and McKenry had RBI singles in the fifth to put the Pirates up 8-2.
But the Phillies rallied against McDonald in the sixth. Hunter Pence had an RBI double and Shane Victorino singled him in to cut it to 8-4.
Jimmy Rollins lined an RBI triple off Jared Hughes with no outs in the seventh. Tony Watson came in and Juan Pierre singled for his 500th career RBI. Utley followed with a single and Ruiz lined an RBI single to right field that Tabata appeared to lose in the lights, cutting the deficit to 8-7.
Brad Lincoln entered and preserved the lead. He struck out Pence, retired Victorino on a fly ball and fanned pinch-hitter Jim Thome .
McCutchen hit a two-run drive off Chad Qualls in the eighth, sending many fans home.
Utley sat out the first 46 games last year before returning to have the least productive season in his career. He batted .259 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs. The 33-year-old second baseman has a condition called bilateral chondromalacia that can't be fixed surgically.
Howard tore his left Achilles' tendon making the final out in the last game of 2011 against St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL division series.
Halladay has been out since May 29 because of a strained latissimus dorsi muscle on the right side of his back.
NOTES: The Phillies plan to call someone up Thursday to replace Savery. They used their entire bullpen except closer Jonathan Papelbon in this loss. ... Manuel said he won't start Utley on Thursday afternoon and plans to give him a day off every three games. ... INF Michael Martinez was optioned to Triple-A to make room for Utley. ... Phillies RHP Mike Stutes had shoulder surgery Tuesday and likely will miss the rest of the season. ... The Pirates won for just the third time in the last 19 games in Philadelphia. ... McCutchen leads the majors with a .456 average (31 for 68) against lefties. ... Phillies had their 260th straight sellout, counting postseason play. ... McKenry is 9 for 14 with two homers and six RBIs in this series. ... A.J. Burnett (8-2, 3.24) tries to win his eighth straight start for the Pirates on Thursday afternoon. Kyle Kendrick (2-7, 5.24) goes for the Phillies.
Rob Maaddi can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/RobMaaddi