Ryne Sandberg understands his second baseman because that's exactly what Ryne Sandberg was like when he made a living playing baseball for the Chicago Cubs here in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. The results, of course, have been similar, too.
"Carbon copy," Sandberg said when asked how much his approach as a player resembled Utley's. "I like the way he plays. He rubs off on everybody else."
The manager especially liked the way Utley played during the 100th opening day at this wonderful antique of a ballpark Friday afternoon. With the Phillies down, 2-1, in the top of the fifth inning, Utley stepped to the plate after a Carlos Ruiz single and used the elements to his advantage.
The wind was blowing out to right field at 23 m.p.h. and while the 28-degree wind chill made things quite uncomfortable – Utley wore a hat with earflaps - anybody who could hit the ball high enough had a chance of connecting for a home run.
That's exactly what Utley did on a first-pitch fastball from lefthander Travis Wood, a pitcher who has given the Phillies fits in the past. The home run gave the Phillies a 3-2 lead in what eventually became a 7-2 victory that helped wash away the bitter aftertaste of consecutive walk-off losses in Texas.
"I knew it had a shot," Utley said of his first home run of the season. "I hit it OK and I got it high enough to catch the jet stream."
It was one of two hits for Utley - he also singled home Ben Revere in the seventh - and in the 10 days since he left Clearwater, he has gone from one of the coldest hitters in baseball to one of the hottest. In the games that count, he is 7 for 18 for a team-high .389 average. Add in his 3-for-3 performance in the final exhibition game at Citizens Bank Park, he is hitting .476 since getting away from the palm trees and surf.
"Obviously you're looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that's not the most important thing," Utley said. "The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season."
Even after only scoring five runs in their final two games in Texas, Sandberg and hitting instructor Steve Henderson are pleased with the way the offense has come out of the gate.
"I wasn't worried about Chase and, as a matter of fact, I wasn't worried about none of these guys," Henderson said. "Their main objective was to get ready for the season and that's what they did. These guys worked their butts off. People don't see what these guys do to get prepared."
What they didn't do was hit much in spring-training games, but through the first four regular-season games, the Phillies are batting .300 as a team with a .360 on-base percentage. They are also hitting .342 with runners in scoring position.
"I talked about the potential of our lineup," Sandberg said after the Phillies evened their record at 2-2. "I talked about the balance of the lineup with Marlon Byrd and Chooch [Carlos Ruiz]. Speed at the top of the order. I saw potential all the way through.
"Now, we have offense up and down the lineup. Not only that, we're adding some base on balls for on-base percentage. The guys are doing a good job making the pitchers throw strikes."
Utley made the biggest contributions Friday, but no one had much luck getting him to elaborate on his hot start or his cold spring. The former Cubs second baseman who now manages the Phillies was among four Hall of Famers who threw out the first pitch before the game. Sandberg also reminisced about his fond memories here before the game.
Maybe someday Utley will do the same at Citizens Bank Park. For now, he has little to say about anything, although he did appreciate the complimentary comparison from his manager.
"I respect him and I think he respects me," Utley said. "Obviously he was an unbelievable player and he had a great career. Obviously it's pretty cool he would say that, but I just try to go out there and win."