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Reaction to Utley news: Don't underestimate Nationals

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
JUPITER, Fla. -- As the ominous sound of Chase Utley's health made its way across the state, two scouts reacted to the Phillies' latest setback in a very interesting way.

The scouts, independently of each other, immediately said not to underestimate the Nationals in an NL East that gets more competive as the Phillies look older and more vulnerable.

"I'll be surprised if the Nationals don't contend," one of the scouts said. "They've got four good starting pitchers, the back-end of their bullpen is good, they're solid two through six in their lineup."

Within those four starters -- Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson -- Strasburg is beginning to look like the Strasburg of old. He hasn't quite locked in on the strike zone yet but "his stuff looks like it's back," the scout said.

John Lannan probably will start the season as the No. 5 starter now that Chien-Ming Wang will miss a couple of weeks with a knee injury and, as another scout said, "he's a pretty good fifth starter."

"The Nationals' pitching is pretty good," the other scout said. "They're going to be pretty good."

Both scouts agreed with the Nationals' decision to dispatch phenom Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse.

"He's not ready yet," one said. "He needs to see more left-handed pitching. You have to remember, he's a college freshman."

The other scout said Harper's "still got some things that are exploitable at the plate. His 0 and 2 approach, that's not where it needs to be."

News of Utley leaving the Phillies' camp to see a specialist piqued interest across the game Monday, especially for those involved with the NL East.

The Phillies, via a statement from GM Ruben Amaro Jr., admitted that Utley's rehabilitation "has come to a bit of a plateau" and that he "is headed out of town for a few days to be evaluated by a specialist that has helped athletes overcome his issue."

Utley's "issue" is a chronic condition in both knees. He has not played in a game since last October and has had very limited activity so far in camp. But as colleague Danny Knobler points out, the Phillies won 102 games last season with Utley missing two months.

Sunblock Day: You bet. Easily over 80 again. Rick Stelmaszek, in his 32nd year as Twins bullpen coach and who has been in professional baseball since the 1960s, told me this is the best Florida weather he ever remembers. I see no reason to disagree.

Likes: Never thought I'd say this, but the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez is a pleasure so far this spring. And what a thing it is to watch him hitting, healthy again. ... Same old Heath Bell. He was wearing a navy blue T-shirt in the Marlins' clubhouse Monday morning with the words "Relief Pitcher" across the chest. And a picture of a pitcher of beer underneath. Of course. ... Gotta say, I find the advertisements for the new Three Stooges movie quite appealing. Watching the NCAA tourney, they got my attention with the "The movie the Catholic church does not want you to see" opening. Very funny. But I still wish Sean Penn was playing Moe -- as he originally was set to do before backing out. ...

Dislikes: Pulled into the parking lot for dinner at the fabulous Leftovers Café here the other night, only to find a sign telling me that they're closed on Sundays. And I'm now leaving the area, so I'll have to wait til next year (as they say). Bummer. The Sweet Potato Encrusted Halibut is sensational.

Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
"It's still fat and easy up on banker's hill
"Up on bankers hill the party's going strong
"Down here below we're shackled and drawn"

-- Bruce Springsteen, Shackled and Drawn
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