Slump-ridden Utley helps Phils snap skid

Ryan Howard, left, celebrates with Cesar Hernandez after Cameron Rupp (not shown) hit a double, scoring Howard and Hernandez during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Thursday, July 3, 2014 in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

MIAMI - Ryne Sandberg invited players into his office one at a time Thursday afternoon, a dire catharsis for the Phillies, losers of six straight.

"Be ready to be the guy to make a difference," the Phillies manager told some of his veterans, and he once again looked to Chase Utley for leadership.

Utley, mired in one of the deepest slumps of his career, hit a potential double-play ball at Marlins second baseman Donovan Solano in the ninth inning. Solano misplayed it, settled for one out, and the go-ahead run scored in a 5-4 Phillies win.

That is not what Sandberg imagined. At least Utley's bat showed some life; his sixth-inning single ignited a three-run rally that snapped a 17-inning Phillies scoreless drought before they staged the game-winning comeback in the ninth.

Utley, probably the team's lone all-star, generated almost no concern in the first two months. But he is the team's worst everyday hitter since May 27, a span of 37 games.

"I wish I could tell you why," Utley said. "Sometimes baseball can be frustrating. You have to stick with it."


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He has just five extra-base hits in his last 159 plate appearances. No player in baseball has batted more times than Utley in that period and posted a lower OPS than his .570. He is, in effect, one of the game's worst hitters during that period.

It is a remarkable twist to a season that started with incredible production. Utley posted a .950 OPS in the season's first 48 games (198 plate appearances). He blasted 21 doubles, which led the National League, and paced the offense. He batted over .400 until April 21.

Utley described his current swing: "It's been better, and it's been worse." He laughed. The second baseman loathes a discussion about himself, whether it be during good or bad times.

Questions about Utley's health will linger for the duration of his career. He played in 81 of the Phillies' first 85 games, his highest workload since 2009, when he appeared in 83 of 85. He was 30 years old then, and yet to encounter the debilitating knee pain that later threatened everything.

He endured 131 games last season, but a strained rib cage muscle at the end of May that shelved him for 28 games kept him fresh for the second half. Sandberg refused to cite fatigue as a reason for Utley's recent anemic hitting. Same for Utley, who said, "I feel OK."

The manager has rested Utley twice since May 27. When he sat the second baseman on June 17, Sandberg observed that Utley's "bat looks sluggish, his swing is a little long." Sandberg, a week later, said Utley had "shown some good things in batting practice, and I think it's just a temporary thing."

But the slump has persisted. Sandberg blamed that on a lack of timing. He observed Utley chasing bad balls and taking hittable ones.

"That indicates it's a timing thing, recognizing the pitch and having the timing to connect with it," Sandberg said. "That's what I believe. I believe the power is still there. We see it in batting practice."

Utley batted twice Thursday with a runner on first. He whiffed at a fastball that bisected the plate in the first inning. He stabbed at an outside fastball in the third and flied out to left.

He connected in the sixth inning for a single. Ryan Howard and Marlon Byrd followed with singles to load the bases. An RBI groundout and strikeout thrust third-string catcher Cameron Rupp into a crucial moment with runners at first and third. He crushed Marlins reliever Chris Hatcher's ninth pitch to the wall for a two-run double.

Rupp pounded his fists together at second base. The Phillies dugout celebrated success, later robbed, then restored with a seesaw ending. Sandberg could point to various difference-makers, and Utley was one.