On Wednesday, Hefner managed to retire eight of the 17 batters he faced, and that was not enough to prevent a 7-3 Phillies victory. Tuesday, it was Dillon Gee who took the brunt of the punishment in an 8-3 win by the Phillies. After a seven-game span in which the Phils' batters averaged 3.9 runs, 2.3 extra-base hits and 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings, the consecutive victories over the Mets were a welcome relief. Of more consequence for the long term was the performance of a certain second baseman.
It is this simple: Not since the early months of 2010 has Chase Utley looked this good. On Wednesday night, that took the form of a two-run home run to centerfield in the Phillies' five-run first inning. The night before, it was a couple of walks and a couple of stolen bases. Through nine games, Utley has reached base in 15 of his 44 plate appearances. He has hit two home runs to go with two doubles and a triple. He leads the Phillies in runs and RBI and is second in steals.
We are only talking about nine games, yes. But as nine-game stretches go, the one that Utley has opened the season with is unlike many we have seen over the last two-plus seasons.
"I think he's getting a quick swing because he's in real good condition," Manuel said. "He's got a strong core. His legs are strong. I think that's definitely what produces a real quick bat. He's got his legs underneath him. He stays strong on his backside."
In other words, he looks like he did back when people were predicting he would win multiple MVPs over the course of his career. The last time we saw that player was in May 2010, just before the first hint of trouble trickled out by way of an offhand comment made by then first-base coach Davey Lopes to Baseball Prospectus that suggested Utley was dealing with some sort of injury to one of his knees. That was in mid-June, when the second baseman was mired in his first slump of the season. Soon after, Utley denied that he was hurt in a group interview in the Phillies' dugout (then went out and hit a home run as if to say, "See?"). He has never been quite the same.
That year, Utley finished the month of May hitting .277/.394/.514 with 10 home runs in 213 plate appearances. Over the final 4 months of the season, his power plummeted. He hit .274 with a .383 on-base percentage, but managed a slugging percentage of only .395 with six home runs in 298 plate appearances (he also missed nearly 2 months after undergoing thumb surgery).
The last two seasons offered something of an Utley Lite. He still had better-than-average power for a middle infielder, and he still found ways to reach base, and to circle them once he arrived. For the first nine games of 2013, he has looked a lot like the player he was in his prime.
"I think he's totally healthy and he's playing real good," Manuel said, "but at the same time I still monitor, and I think somewhere along the line he will still need a blow here and there."
Through nine games, Utley is hitting .333 with a .395 OBP and five extra-base hits, two of them home runs, in 33 at-bats. Through nine games in 2010, he was hitting .343 with a .477 OBP and seven extra-base hits, five of them home runs, in 35 ABs. If that kind of production continues, and if it remains bracketed with a resurgent Michael Young around Ryan Howard, the Phillies will be a much improved offense over last season.
Sure, those are two big "ifs." But even nine games of the old Chase Utley is a pleasure to watch.
On Twitter: @HighCheese