The Phillies' winning combination

Posted: May 14, 2014

AS SOON as tomorrow, health permitting, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley will start together in the middle of the Phillies' infield for the 1,100th time in their careers. It is a stretch of games that extends back to 2003 when Utley first subbed in for Placido Polanco as the Phillies' second baseman, and it is a stretch that began when David Bell was their third baseman, Jim Thome played first, and Marlon Byrd was their promising young centerfielder.

It is a stretch that, in years at least, surpasses all but one of baseball's most famous tandems, and eclipses any current one. Only Detroit's Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were together longer. Bill Russell and Davey Lopes were the Dodgers' tandem for nine seasons. Dave Concepcion and Joe Morgan lasted 8 years together with the Big Red Machine, as did Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg and his longtime Cubs partner, Shawon Dunston.

Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox made it through 7, Ozzie Smith and Tommy Herr 6, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson just 5.

That's then. Now? Even the tradition-rich Yankees let Robinson Cano walk after playing alongside Derek Jeter for eight seasons. There is no other current combo that comes close.

It is, to quote Utley, "Unique. And very special."

"First of all, it's hard for any single player to spend a decade with the same team," said Sandberg, citing free agency. "That's old-school now. We may never see guys together like this for this long again.

"They are," said the manager, "throwbacks."

The common thread between the Phillies' throwbacks and their predecessors begins with offense. It is also how middle infield pairings are predominantly measured. Before injuries slowed him, Utley was on track for Cooperstown. His return to health last season signaled a return to his previous productivity, which has continued thus far in 2014. Utley's 15 doubles leads the National League and his .338 average places him third. His .945 OPS leads the team.

Because he has played longer and remained healthier, Rollins has accrued statistics to at least create a conversation about his Hall of Fame candidacy. At 35 years of age, he has put together a promising start to this season, covering as much ground statistically as he does in the field. Entering tonight's game against the Angels, Rollins owns a .276 average with an OPS of .811. He is second on the team in stolen bases, tied for second in home runs, and has walked nearly as often (19) as he has struck out (24).

He's also a couple dozen hits away from tying Mike Schmidt as the Phillies' all-time hits leader, at 2,234.

Those statistics have obscured what else tethers the Phillies' pair to the past. For what it's worth, Rollins and Utley continue to rank among the better defensive tandems in baseball, even at 35.

"It's pretty cool," said Ryan Howard, the Phillies' first baseman. "Because when you have those guys out there, you know pretty much what you're going to get."

"I think when you do it year after year the way Jimmy and Chase have, they know each other like the back of their hand," Sandberg said. "They move together. They communicate. And the fact that both are so good instinctively in the middle of the diamond in those two positions goes a long way in the way our defense plays and the way we handle different plays that are put on against us."

Romanticized forever by an eight-line poem, "Tinker to Evers to Chance" has become synonymous with the doubleplay, baseball's version of the Pick-6, killing and creating momentum at once in a spectacularly synchronized flash of leather, usually by the men manning the middle of the diamond.

Shortstop Joe Tinker and second baseman Johnny Evers became so familiar with each other's strengths and tendencies that sports writer F.C. Lane dubbed the Cubs' doubleplay tandem as the "Siamese twins of baseball" because "they play the bag as if they were one man, not two."

Truth is Tinker and Evers didn't care much for each other, at odds for most of those doubleplays due to an early dispute over cab fare. Not until 1938, long after they had ceased flipping the ball to each other, did the two men make peace, embracing after they were unknowingly reunited for a World Series broadcast that year.

The relationship between Utley and Rollins is not that. It is not beers at a barbecue, but as Matt Stairs will tell you, even talking hitting with Utley is not that easy, mostly because the Phillies second baseman spends almost all of his time at the ballpark preparing to hit that night.

As Stairs also will attest, too many words about hitting can turn you into a mess anyway.

That's not the case with fielding, said Rollins. The trick over nearly 1,100 games, he said at his locker recently, is to assume nothing.

"That's fool's gold, that read-your-mind stuff," he said. "We have times where it's like that, but we're still gonna go and communicate. Because you don't want to get caught assuming."

Thus the Phillies player who has the longest and most recurring interaction with Utley is Rollins, whether it's brief conversations between innings, shouting across the field to each other or going over things at the mound during a pitching change.

"We talk all the time," Rollins said. Again, not beers at a barbecue, but theirs is clearly a mutual admiration society that translates into advantageous nuances. A cheating step here and there, a pickoff play changeup designed to catch an inattentive rookie napping.

"I think the more you play with someone, the more comfortable you get with them," Utley said. "There's a rhythm that comes from playing with the same guy for a long time."

Last year at this time, that long time seemed near a conclusion. Utley's contract was running out at the end of the season and so it seemed were his knees. Rollins had re-signed for 3 years the previous fall, but it was thought he might waive his no-trade deal for a shot at another championship.

Instead, Jimmy ticked off more than a few fans when he insisted he wanted to be a Phillie to the end, and Utley's knees got healthy in time for him to sign for at least two more seasons in red pinstripes. And now, early in a season of mercurial swings, they are again the team's ballast, suggesting a run that might someday challenge even the 14 seasons Trammell and Whitaker spent together, a run unlikely to be repeated again.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

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