Can Phils get back in the Chase?

Pittsburgh (38-34) at Philadelphia (35-40), 7:05 p.m. EDT

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.

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