Utley, Howard showing signs of being strong at plate

JONATHAN DANIEL / GETTY IMAGES Chase Utley homers in Friday's game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
JONATHAN DANIEL / GETTY IMAGES Chase Utley homers in Friday's game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Posted: April 09, 2014

THE PHILLIES and their equipment - balls, bats, helmets, etc. - arrived in Chicago in the early hours of Thursday morning, still more than 24 hours before they would play their first game at Wrigley Field.

But as Chase Utley patrolled the front of the cramped visiting clubhouse in the 100-year-old ballpark on Friday, with a ski cap keeping his head warm in the early-morning cold, he couldn't find an important piece of equipment. He poked into one bag. And then another.

"I can't find my bat," he said of his game bat.

Utley eventually found it.

Although the bat broke at one point over the weekend, Utley and his swing stayed in tune for the final half of a road trip that saw a couple of the team's key cogs in sync at the plate.

Utley hit home runs in the first two games of the series at Wrigley Field and has hit safely in each of the first six games of the season. He's hitting .458 (11-for-24) with five extra-base hits.

Ryan Howard's five-game hitting streak came to an end Sunday, when he went 0-for-5. But it was the arguably the best 0-for-5 anyone could ask for: Howard didn't strike out, hit two balls to the warning track and another into the shift in rightfield, and hit a second hard line-drive out that ended the game.

"That's baseball," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said of Howard's hard-luck afternoon. "He hit the baseball on the screws, right at people. That's a good sign. Eventually, those balls will start backspinning and getting out of the yard."

For the first time in a long time, both of Rollins' longtime teammates, Howard and Utley, are healthy and looking capable at the plate, too.

"We haven't had that in maybe about 4 years," Rollins said. "It's a good start."

Following Sunday's game, Utley's 1.369 OPS led the National League. He has more walks (three) than strikeouts (two), and in six games, Utley already has more home runs in the regular season (two) than he had in 21 games this spring (zero).

In the exhibition season, Utley had only three extra-base hits (all doubles) and hit .217 in 60 at-bats.

"The last few games of spring training, I felt like I was swinging better," Utley said. "I didn't have many results to show for it, but I felt OK."

"I'm not surprised," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said of Utley's hot start. "He'll go through times when he's going good and times when he's struggling a little bit. I don't know, spring training, it's different for veteran guys than it is for younger guys. Different experience. People don't seem to understand that, I guess."

Howard hasn't put up the dazzling first-week stats that match Utley. He has two extra-base hits in six games.

But after striking out seven times in three games in Texas - where he also hit a home run and run-scoring double, both off lefthanded pitchers, in a pair of one-run losses - Howard had as many walks as he had strikeouts in three games in Chicago (two apiece). He also regularly put together at-bats that drew praise from his manager.

"He's swinging the bat well," Ryne Sandberg said of Howard, who is hitting .240 with 10 total bases, second on the team behind Utley. "I like him staying in the middle of the field the way he's doing, and he's going to left-centerfield with pitches, he's driving the ball. He hit the last [ball on Sunday] on the nose to leftfield - that's all good signs. He's squaring the balls up, and he's having real good aggressive swings and contact. And also he's swinging at strikes. That's a good combination for him."

Of course, the first week of the season is an extraordinarily small sample size to use in an effort to support whether either player will have a productive 2014. But, for Sandberg and Co., it's still better than the alternative, particularly with the two injury-prone and aging members of the middle of his batting order.

No matter how both perform in the coming weeks, if both Utley and Howard are on the field, the Phillies will stand a better chance at keeping pace in the NL East.

Although he missed a month with an oblique injury last year, Utley had his first healthy season in 3 years in 2013. He played in 131 games and hit .284 with an .823 OPS, 18 home runs and 69 RBI.

"And he didn't have a whole lot of protection in the lineup last year, either," Amaro said. "People want to talk about his year last year, and he had a good year, but who the hell else did? Nobody. He didn't have a whole lot of people around him doing damage.

It's difficult to rack up RBI and runs scored if the people in front of you and behind you aren't performing, right?

"And it's hard to get pitches," Amaro said. "When you have people behind you, Ryan and [Marlon Byrd], they can do some damage, and people know it. It's a little different."

If Howard follows Utley's path from last year, perhaps the middle of the lineup will be different, too. Different, as in both healthy and productive.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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