By Bill Campbell

 Chase Utley

Much has been said and written about the Phillies, especially when they opened the season by losing 4 of their first 6 games. But one laudable performance has been somewhat overlooked. Exactly one year ago, you couldn’t open a sports page in any publication anywhere without reading about the desperate condition of Chase Utley’s knees. So far this year, the pitching is front and center and it’s all about Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and the Phillies’ bullpen problems. But Utley is off to a terrific start, hitting 467 in the first 4 games, with 4 extra-base hits, 2 doubles, a triple and a home run. Even in that 13-4 debacle against Kansas City last Friday night, Utley hit a single and a double and scored a run. Cole blew a 4-0 lead on his way to defeat but Chase carried his weight. Phillies fans should take note.

Utley says his pre-game workouts have become easier to handle because of his overall conditioning work, and his notorious knees have not given him trouble. He’s looked spry and quick in the field and on the base paths. He slid into third base in the third game against the Royals last week with Ryan Howard drilling him home a batter later. It was really good to see. Utley has stolen 33 bases in his last 34 attempts, including each of his last 12 efforts. It’s a nice way to start the season.

With the Royals’ success in their easy win over the Phils at the opener, it really became Delaware’s Day. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moestakas, both former Wilmington Blue Rocks from the Carolina League, led the Kansas City barrage against the Phillies’ bullpen going a combined 8 for 10 at the plate with 3 RBI’s, all by Hosmer. In all, 5 former Wilmington players played in Friday’s game. And let’s not forget that Kansas City traded 3 former Blue Rocks in exchange for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, who started for the Royals on Friday and Sunday, respectively, and took the Phillies apart. The Royals don’t visit Philadelphia often but they will remember their time here last week for quite awhile. So will the Phils.

We can’t deny that the Phillies’ problems in the bullpen continue, borne both of the inexperience of Jeremy Horst, Chad Durbin and Raul Valdes and the unpredictability of veterans Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. But the job being done out of the gate by Chase Utley is encouraging. Let’s hope it continues.

 The Pathetic Sixers and Flyers

The 76ers are out of the play-off chase and they’re getting a day or two off. Though they have 6 games remaining, they were eliminated from play-off contention with the recent loss to the Miami Heat. Having been out-scored by the Heat 24-7 in the final 10 minutes, time off seems appropriate. The embarrassing defeat, coupled with Milwaukee’s victory over Toronto, locked up the last spot in the Eastern Conference play-offs for the Bucks. It was the Heat’s fourth straight season sweep of the Sixers who had been play-off participants in the last 2 years. They didn’t come close this season. The 76ers last defeated Miami on March 15, 2009. The Heat is a team that seems to get better and better, winning their last match-up against the Sixers without the help of the injured Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh. Miami has won 29 of their last 31 games which is easily the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. But the Sixers, patched together due to injuries and the missing Andrew Bynum, fell into reverse this season. “There’s a reason why they went on that run,”said Sixers center, Spencer Hawes. “They have a lot of guys that can beat you. I can’t remember the last time we beat them so, right now, it’s got to be them.” We can’t remember either.

It’s interesting to note that, in his previous 2 coaching jobs, Doug Collins didn’t make it to his third season. It’s his third season here and, while we haven’t heard loud rumors about replacing him, there’s a bit of a rumble going on – so you never know.

Meanwhile, the Flyers are 5 points out of a playoff spot and, like the Sixers, are almost out of time. They lost an awful outing to Winnipeg, 4-1, last week. They have 10 games to go including one on Tuesday against the New York Islanders, who currently hold the eighth and final Eastern Conference play-off spot in the NHL. Scott Hartnell’s comment on the task ahead was, “We’ve had some success against the Islanders in the past so we’ve got to stay positive and not get too down.” It doesn’t look like the Flyers will get any of their injured defense-men back soon. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is expected to make his 23rd start against New York. He’s the only NHL goalie to have all his team’s victories this year.

It’s been pretty much a woeful year at the Wells Fargo Center. It will end soon.

The Final Four      

 Louisville 72-Wichita State 68          Michigan 61-Syracuse 56

In the Louisville-Wichita State game, Louisville was a solid favorite although, after Wichita State took apart LaSalle so handily, I thought the Shockers could go all the way.      They led 47-35 with just 13 minutes to go, playing on pace and with great concentration. Louisville was rushing shots and the Shockers were quickly into the one-and-one. They appeared to be in charge of their offense and things looked ominous for the favored Louisville. But close to halftime, Louisville walk-on guard, Tim Henderson, changed things. Although he had played sparingly this season, Henderson came on and hurled a big three-pointer and then another from almost the exact same spot to turn the tide. Louisville took it home and, almost simultaneously, a horse named Golden Center crossed the finish line to win the Santa Anita Derby and gain a starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. What’s the connection? Louisville coach Rick Pitino owns the horse. So the coach was a winner all around last weekend, on the court and on the track.

Until Sunday and despite 9 tries, Michigan coach John Beilein never had beaten Syracuse. This was his first attempt with some very skilled defensive players on his roster, and he had a week to prepare them for the vaunted Syracuse zone with freshman big guy, Mitch McGary, in the middle. It showed. The Wolverines went right after Jim Boeheim’s Orange defense with 11 assists by halftime, getting key baskets from Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert and Jon Horford. C.J. Dair’s 22 points led Michigan and the team made 8 three’s and 7 free throws in the second half. By the end, Beilein had himself a very big win. Up Monday: Louisville and Michigan.

The Masters

It’s Masters week. The deciding rounds can be seen on Thursday and Friday from 3:00 to 7:30 p.m., Saturday from 3:00 to 7:00 and Sunday from 2:00 to the finish. It’s the 77th Masters and Tiger Woods looks like he’s ready to play. Tiger has won 6 times in his last 20 tournaments and has battled back to rise again to Number One in the world of golf. His 14th major title victory came in the 2008 U.S. Open when he almost hurried around Torrey Pines to pull it out on a 19th hole play-off. He hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005. But he seems to be back on the stick now with back-to-back victories last month in the World Golf Event in Dubai and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. It looks like his confidence is restored and he’s girded for battle. Woods recently said, “I’ve gotten so much better since last year’s Masters. I’ve cleaned up a lot of things in my game and I’ve turned some of the minuses in my game into pluses. I’m really excited about the rest of this year.” He had descended to “Fifty Plus” in world rankings from Number One after that SUV accident in 2011 which led to revelations about multiple infidelities. But now he needs to win 5 more majors to break Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18. Woods says he is not driving the ball as well as he has. At one time his drive was the best, most consistent part of his game. However his putting game, often overlooked, is on fire. He putted phenomenally at Bay Hill, missing just once from within 10 feet. So defending champ Bubba Watson, three-time Masters’ winner Phil Mickelson, and World Number Two player, Rory McElroy, had better be prepared. The Masters can always produce a dark horse – but my money’s on Tiger.