Phils seize the wild-card lead

Posted: August 17, 2010

During batting practice Tuesday, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel stood behind the cage with his youngest pupil, Domonic Brown. Manuel's face lit up with each swing Chase Utley took. He excitedly tapped Brown on the shoulder and pointed when he wanted to explain how beautiful and sound Utley's swing is.

No, Manuel admitted later, Utley is not yet 100 percent. "Maybe 99 and four-hundredths," the manager said. But that was close enough. The rest of the Phillies could pick up their second baseman, just as they did in the 43 games he was absent with a thumb injury.

It happened again Tuesday. Utley went hitless but the Phillies beat San Francisco, 9-3, at Citizens Bank Park.

Their opening-day lineup has not been together since May 21, but with 44 games to play, the Phillies have the NL wild-card lead. In the NL East, they moved two games behind the Atlanta Braves, whose game ended later Tuesday night,

Roy Oswalt, who was a Houston Astro when Utley last played a major-league game, pitched seven strong innings. After the Phils trailed early, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino - both of whom are hitting well below their career averages - each delivered with key two-run hits.

In the eighth, the Phillies tacked on five runs - the big hit coming on a two-run double by Carlos Ruiz - eliminating the need for a Brad Lidge save.

With two contending teams facing off, there was a playoff feel in South Philly, buoyed by the return of Utley and former Phillie Pat Burrell, the Giants' leftfielder who homered in his first at-bat in Citizens Bank Park since his seventh-inning double in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series.

On Tuesday, Utley was the first Phillie to sprint out of the first-base dugout as the team took the field. He returned to the team about a week ahead of the original eight-week timetable for recovery following July 1 right thumb surgery.

Before the game, Utley didn't take questions from reporters, trying to make his routine as normal as possible. Just as usual, he was one of the first players fully dressed in his home white uniform more than an hour before first pitch.

When Utley stepped to the plate in the first inning, the 98th consecutive sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park regaled him with a standing ovation. He stepped out of the box, kicked the dirt, and didn't acknowledge the applause. (Who would have expected him to?)

He took the first two pitches he saw from Barry Zito. He fouled the third one off and swung at a slider, weakly grounding to third for a fielder's choice. The fans cheered anyway.

In time, Manuel expects Utley to catch up. The injury could actually have a benefit. Utley is a .267 career hitter in September and October, 27 points below his career batting average.

"I think he will be stronger than he would if he had been playing every day," Manuel said.

In the third, Utley grounded out to second. He flied out to deep center field in the fifth. In the seventh, he weakly rolled one to second. He reached on an error by Giants second baseman Mike Fontenot in the eighth.

Everyone else did the scoring. Before the game, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. praised the Ross Gloads and Wilson Valdezes of the world for their contributions. Now, with Utley back and Ryan Howard on the way, the rest of the Phillies' regulars are the ones coming up big in the important moments.

Just in time, as a pennant race unofficially began Tuesday.


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at 215-854-2928 or mgelb@phillynews.com.

Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/magelb.

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