Back in the Dark Age of the Ashburn Era, the Phillies had a 1952-54 catcher named Smokey Burgess. Smokey was also an extraordinary pinch-hitter, and as his 18-year career took him to the Reds, Pirates and White Sox after gigs with the Cubs and Phillies, they said this about the instinctive hitter: "He could climb out of bed at midnight in January and hit a line drive."
It was 10:05 a.m. on May 7 when Utley climbed into the batter's box to face an enemy pitcher for the first time since Brian Wilson walked him with two outs in the ninth inning of NLCS Game 6 to set the stage for Ryan Howard's infamous called strike 3. The date was Oct. 23, 2010. The jaw-breaking word "chondromalacia" was not yet part of Philadelphia's baseball vocabulary.
This pitcher was considerably less than The Beard. John Anderson, a sturdy lefthander, had something in common with Utley. He, too, was in extended spring training on a rehab assignment, trying to come back from Tommy John surgery that scrubbed his 2010 season. Before the Californian was cut on, Anderson was a 28th-round draft pick trying to escape the bottom of the minor league food chain. He brought a 2-year, 4-9 record against Utley.
At 10:05 a.m., Chase did not stroke a line drive. Instead, he guided a well-struck bouncer into rightfield. One small step . . . He was batting in the No. 3 hole for manager Roly deArmas, the Ozzie Guillen of the Gulf Coast League. The plan in the accommodating, company softball rules of extended, was for Utley to be the third hitter in each inning of a game scheduled for nine.
In the second, Utley looked at a called third strike. There was some yapping from the Phillies' bench at the young plate umpire. As he walked away, Utley turned to the ump and said with a smile, "You gonna put up with that kind of talk?"
Third inning, the count ran to 3-2. Anderson said he wanted to paint the inside corner with a fastball, but missed outside. What the kid saw in a blur was a flashback to the shortest, quickest stroke in the game by its best low-ball hitter. The baseball soared majestically over the yellow line in left-center and clattered off a high protective screen behind the fence.
In the fourth, Chase dribbled a ball to the right of the mound. He busted and legged it out. Then he scored on the first home run of any kind stroked by high-ceiling, low-result, former high school football star Kyrell Hudson. Hudson is back in extended after hitting .173 at Williamsport last season. In the fifth, Chase cracked his second single.
Utley faced a virgin in the sixth. Linguini-thin lefthander Justin Nicolino, 6-3 and 160 pounds, was the Blue Jays' No. 2 draft pick last June. Negotiations dragged through the summer and the Orlando high school graduate signed too late for the Gulf Coast League season. He has yet to play a professional game. Utley said, hello, kid, with his third single.
Chase called it a day after his seventh at-bat. And why not head for Clearwater Beach after launching a home run to dead right that would have been second deck at the Bank? The ball cleared the cyclone fence, the high screen, and landed halfway up a batting-cage screen on a city recreation diamond adjacent to the Jays' complex. It was smoked.
Utley played six innings in the field and caught two routine popups. No ground-ball chances, so no throws. As impressive as was the 5-for-7 - splashes of singles with accents of raw power - it was not a particularly testing day.
He needs to make tough plays to his backhand side, gloving, planting and throwing off that afflicted right leg. He needs to go first-to-third and second-to-home. He must avoid a sliding runner while turning a doubleplay. He needs to steal a base and tag out a stealer. He needs to range into the outfield to take a relay throw, spin and gun the ball to a base or the plate.
Utley collected his bats and equipment.
"Thanks a lot, guys," he said, knocking fists with the extended kids he had just reminded of what a long climb they face to ascend to his level. Del Unser, a Phillies pro scout now, waited to drive him to Bright House Network Field.
"I'm staying over on the beach," he told me. "I'm just going to kick back the rest of the day, doing nothing."
In that minimalist way he has of expressing himself, you could tell that Chase Utley was pleased with the way it went, pleased he had hit the ground running. You could tell by the shadow of a smile he saved for high noon.
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