Bob Ford: Utley does it again, sets tone for Series

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Chase Utley hit home runs in the third and sixth innings for the Phillies. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

NEW YORK - There was no way to expect what Chase Utley did last night in the opening game of the World Series, of course.

He is playing hurt, after all, or at least that was the assumption as he figuratively limped through the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers, falling into a slump at the plate and double-clutching on some throws from second base.

There was no way to expect what Utley did to set the tone for this Series, because this is the time of year in which he becomes worn down by the grind of the six-month season and is operating purely on fumes. At least that is how it seemed.

In fact, there was no way to expect what Utley did, unless you have paid close attention to his career. This is what he does.

Utley's first at-bat in the 2008 World Series against Tampa Bay was a two-run home run that quieted the crowd and put the Phillies on the right path for the entire series.

Utley didn't homer in his first at-bat of this World Series against the Yankees. He waited until the second at-bat before sticking another pin stuck into the balloon of a home crowd that sat sodden and cold for the rest of the inning. Utley worked lefthander CC Sabathia by fouling off three two-strike pitches before lofting a drive just into the stands of right field.

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, Utley homered again in the sixth inning, also with two strikes against him, giving Cliff Lee as many runs as the pitcher would need to get past New York. Those two solo runs stood up as long as they had to, and would have stood up all night. They didn't have to, as the Phils got into a shaky New York bullpen for two additional runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth to make the opener an emphatic 6-1 win.

"It was nice for us to get off to a good start," Utley said. "The goal isn't to hit home runs. The goal is just to put good at-bats together."

Through seven innings, Sabathia was just about as good as Lee - with one supposedly-hurt, supposedly-tired exception.

If you want to really know why the Phillies came into this World Series with a good chance to repeat as champions - despite the pinstripe hype machine that always follows the Yankees - it is because they do play hurt, and they do play tired, and they don't let those excuses get in the way.

Utley and the Phillies had a week off to regenerate somewhat, but no player and no team really gets fresh this time of year. Not that it mattered to them.

"I expect Utley to hit good. He's the most prepared player I've ever been around," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I expect him to hit good all the time."

It's difficult to know what was New York's excuse last night, other than running into the buzz saw of Cliff Lee. Leadoff hitter Derek Jeter had three hits, half of the entire Yankees' production, but he didn't pick up his team and lead it the way Utley did. The middle of their order, the 3-4-5 hitters, was 1 for 12 with seven strikeouts.

The Phillies weren't exactly battering Sabathia. He gave up just four hits, two of which Utley was good enough and timely enough to deposit over the fence. Without those home runs, maybe Lee can't pitch as aggressively through the middle innings, maybe his defense gets antsy behind him. Maybe a thousand things. But none of them happened because Utley put two runs in Lee's back pocket.

The NLCS ended for Utley with a 0-for-4 night that included three strikeouts. He hit .211 for the entire L.A. series and had only one extra-base hit in the postseason, a solo home run against Colorado.

When his slump against the Dodgers was combined with a couple of errant throws, it seemed obvious that a right foot injury suffered late in the regular season was bothering him. The manager didn't agree, Utley didn't agree (although he can't really be trusted on the subject) and, after last night, it would be hard to argue.

He's not hurt," Manuel said before last night's game. "He's just not swinging good right now. It's a feel - some days when you pick up a bat you feel like you can hit anybody. Then you go through streaks when you're not hitting. That's kind of how it goes."

For Utley, it apparently stops going that way when the biggest moments of the biggest games arrive. At-bats in Game 1 of the World Series qualify as big moments in big games and coming through in those is what leaders do.

Utley doesn't say much, either inside the clubhouse to his teammates, in interviews with the media, or in public. Not everyone leads that way.

"Every day you try to put a game plan together, to get on base for the next guys," Utley said. The next guys didn't come through early last night, but Utley did. There was no way to expect it, but it still wasn't a surprise.

 


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://philly.com/postpatterns.



Bob Ford: Utley does it again, sets tone for Series - Philly

Chase Utley 10/28/09