Utley powering the Phillies

Posted: April 15, 2014

THERE ARE plenty of words that can be used to describe the way Chase Utley is swinging the bat right now, and his manager and teammates used plenty of them yesterday. But the most accurate assessment is probably the one that B.J. Rosenberg offered after yesterday's display, which featured an eighth-inning, go-ahead home run that propelled the Phillies to a 4-3, sweep-clinching victory over the Marlins.

"It's pretty awesome to watch," Rosenberg said with an awestruck smile.

There are plenty of ancillary reasons why Utley will someday retire as one of the most popular athletes to ever don a uniform in Philadelphia, but the foundation is still the fact that he is pretty darn good at baseball. And when he is in the midst of this kind of groove, there are few spectacles that are more fun to watch. Remember, what we have witnessed over the last 10 games is nothing new for Utley. Yes, the numbers are rather ridiculous-looking: a .500 batting average, .565 on-base percentage and .875 slugging percentage, good enough for a 1.440 OPS, all of which lead the majors. But we have seen numbers nearly as ridiculous before: in 2010, when he hit six home runs with a 1.405 OPS in his first 10 games; in 2009, when he had three home runs and a 1.126 OPS; in 2008, when he hit three home runs with a 1.122 OPS.

This is the Utley of the 2009 World Series, the Utley who once upon a time seemed destined for at least one MVP award. In 46 plate appearances, he has reached base 26 times, with nine extra-base hits, and three home runs, and only two - yes, two - strikeouts.

This is the Utley that Tony Gwynn Jr. watched from various vantage points around the National League, first Milwaukee, then San Diego, then Los Angeles. His impression then is the same as it is now.

"That he was a baller," Gwynn said, "and he continues to be a baller. He's healthy now and when guys with his talent are healthy, you are seeing what you are going to get. He's got his legs under him and he's hitting the ball in the middle of the field, which is where he goes when things are going good from watching from a distance. It's fun to watch."

The health talk is something that Utley would rather avoid.

"I've had some decent days," was all he would offer. "I feel OK."

Still, Gwynn isn't the only one who sees a player who is benefiting from a body that was severely compromised for 3 years by a painful knee condition.

"I just see him in really good shape, moving really well on the field defensively, running the bases, and staying so active on the bases that maybe that shows how well he's feeling," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "I think that's just a non-issue. He's just having quality at bats, seeing the ball well."

Yesterday, that meant a day in which he reached base four times, none of those moments bigger than the eighth inning, when he worked a 2-0 count against one of the tougher lefty relievers in the National League and then blasted a slider into the seats in rightfield.

"Even his outs are hard," Sandberg said.

By the end of the game, Utley was leading the majors in all four categories, as well as the more advanced wOBA (.609) and WAR (1.2). (If you have to ask what they are, you probably don't want to know.) His performance is one of the big reasons why the Phillies are averaging 4.7 runs per game with 35 extra-base hits, 11 home runs and 49 walks in 477 plate appearances this season. (Through 12 games last year, they were averaging 4.0 runs per game with 36 extra-base hits, 11 home runs and 34 walks in 452 plate appearances). Their victory yesterday moved them to 6-6, a mark that could easily be two or three games better had their bullpen turned in outings like the ones they did throughout the weekend against the Marlins.

Yesterday, it was Rosenberg shutting down the seventh inning with strikeouts of Giancarlo Stanton and Garrett Jones, Antonio Bastardo handling the eighth, and Jonathan Papelbon closing out the ninth for his third save in four opportunities. Combined, they retired all nine batters they faced.

Kyle Kendrick struck out seven in six innings, allowing three runs, and made an amazing, and self-preserving, catch of a line drive that Jeff Mathis cracked directly at his head in the fourth inning. Yet it was the performance of a certain second baseman that had the ballpark, and the clubhouse, buzzing.

"He'll be in the lineup," Sandberg said with a wry grin. "That's for sure."


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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