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On gritty Phillies, Utley stands out

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Steve Kelley
November 4, 2009
— Like a left-handed Paul Molitor, all quick-twitch and shoulder-turn, Chase Utley turned on a first-pitch A.J. Burnett fastball and turned on a town again.

And as the ball quickly left the yard and Utley quickly rounded the bases (no home-run trot here), most of the 46,000 fans, holding on desperately to hope, poured their love from every direction.


Chase Utley was born in Pasadena, Calif., grew up in Long Beach, went to UCLA, but he is as much a Philly guy as Ben Franklin.


In a city that thinks of itself as a gamer, a city that relates to the “Rocky” movies as if Sylvester Stallone’s character were a real, live fighter, Utley is a true Philadelphia story.


He owns this town the way Steve Carlton and Julius Erving did. He has become a symbol for everything Philadelphians love in their athletes. He’s beyond blue collar. He’s bloody noses, black eyes and bruised arms.


“You know, I say this all the time, sometimes I don’t even like to talk about him because he don’t want me to,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “Actually, he don’t like for you to say a whole lot of things about him. But he’s one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most desire and passion to play the game that I’ve ever been around.


“Sometimes I tell our players, ‘Just play with Chase,’ because if you play with Chase, you’ve got a chance to be a pretty good player.”


On a team of gamers, guys who play the game the right way and play with infectious resilience, even Utley stands out.


When he’s at bat, he crowds the plate as if owns every inch of it. He led the National League in being hit by pitches each of the past three seasons. Still, he never gives in. Gamers don’t give.


Utley would play with a bone protruding through the sleeve of his uniform if he thought he could help the Phillies win.


He played in last season’s World Series with a hip so splintered he needed surgery in November. He wasn’t supposed to be back for opening day. Of course, he was.


There is no gloss to Utley’s game. It’s all grit. He is as hard-working as a beat cop.


And in the first inning of the last Monday of the season, with his team down 1-0, Utley reignited the Phillies’ bats with one of his patented spring-loaded swings.


Utley’s one swing in this


8-6 Philadelphia win, which cut the Yankees’ series lead to 3-2, made this Series compelling again. Maybe, finally, the Yankees’ three-man rotation is wearing down. It has carried them to 11 postseason wins, but the grind of three rounds takes its toll on a short staff.


The last team to go through the entire postseason with a three-man rotation was the 1992 Atlanta Braves, with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. The Yankees are trying to do it with CC Sabathia, Burnett and Andy Pettitte.


Sabathia might want to pitch around Utley if there’s a Game 7. In two games in this series, Utley has hit three home runs of Sabathia. Two came in the first game, when Utley became the first left-handed hitter since Babe Ruth in 1928 to hit two home runs off a left-handed pitcher in a World Series game.


In the seventh inning of Game 5, Utley hit another home run that put Philadelphia ahead 7-2. It was his fifth homer of the series, tying Reggie Jackson for most home runs in a single Series. He also became only the second player to have two multi-homer games in a World Series.


He also stole his third base of the postseason in the third inning and is 26 for 26 in steal attempts this year.


“Chase, when he gets hot, definitely he can get hot and stay for hot for a month or two,” Manuel said. “Knock on wood, hopefully he’s siting in there right now because he’s swinging the bat good and things are going real good for him.”


In his five full big-league seasons, Utley, 30, has been to four All-Star Games and has averaged almost 30 home runs and 100 RBI a year.


“He’s a great hitter and it’s nice to work with a guy who’s that special every day,” hitting coach Milt Thompson said. “He’s unique. He has a short stroke, so that means he can wait till the last second before he swings. He’s just got great hands. For me, coaching him, it’s simple—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just leave him alone and let him do his thing.”


Utley is the Phillies’ quiet leader—a loud bat with a low-key disposition.


“You go out there and play hard and give it everything you can and play every game like it’s your last,” Utley said after the win.”


A friend of mine, John Dunning, who lives about an hour south of Philadelphia and loves the Phillies as if they were family, was so impressed with his golden retriever’s indefatigable pursuit of thrown balls he named the dog Chase.


I suspect there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of dogs named Chase in the Delaware Valley.


Utley retrieved this World Series for the Phillies on Monday night and planted just a small seed of doubt in the mighty New York Yankees.



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