Chase Utley’s reputation precedes him.
Before Tony Gwynn Jr. joined the Phillies Utley was viewed a certain way. Since joining the team there has been nothing to sway Gwynn’s original assessment.
“He was a baller,” Gwynn said. “And he continues to be a baller.”
It was Utley’s home run with two outs in the eighth inning that lifted the Phillies to a 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins and a three-game series sweep Sunday at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay). It also has been Utley’s play that has the Phillies sitting at 6-6 through the first two weeks of the season.
Utley went 3 for 4 with a double, a walk, two runs and an RBI on Sunday. This comes after he went 2 for 4 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs the night before and two more hits in the first game of the series for a 7 for 12 showing against the Marlins to boost his batting average to a cool .500 (20 for 40).
Better yet, nine of Utley’s 20 hits have been for extra bases and four of his hits have given the Phillies the lead. Add in five walks and Utley’s on-base percentage (.565) is the best in the major leagues.
So what gives? Utley has had some hot streaks before, but ever since the injuries began to nag him after the 2009 season, Utley has never been this hot. Actually, that might be it. Utley is healthy and his chronic knee condition is manageable.
Sometimes a little good health goes a long way, according to manager Ryne Sandberg.
“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,” Sandberg said. “I think [his health is] just a non-issue. He's just having quality at bats, seeing the ball well. He's one of the guys making pitchers throw strikes to him. He's just in a real good zone.”
Utley has a hit in each of his 10 games this season and has a 15-game hitting streak including the end of last season. Since last Labor Day, a span covering 32 games, Utley is 49 for 120 (.408) with five homers, nine doubles, 12 walks and 27 RBIs.
Here’s to good health …
“I don’t know. I’ve had some decent days. I feel OK,” Utley said. “Overall, I think this series, we played pretty good baseball. Starting pitchers kept us in the game. We had opportunities to score throughout the course of the game and we capitalized on a few of those opportunities.”
Yes, the improved approach at the plate finally appears to have materialized for the Phillies. Hitters are more selective, they see more pitches and they get on base more often. Headed into Sunday’s game, the Phillies were tops in the National League in walks and third in on-base percentage. That bodes well for the Phillies.
“Obviously the more guys we have on base, the more opportunities we’re going to have to score,” Utley said. “Obviously on-base percentage is important. Trying to get a good pitch to hit is important. Right now, we’re executing, which is a good sign.”
The walks and quality plate appearances are one thing. Getting hits with men on base is the next piece of the puzzle. The Phillies stranded 12 runners in Sunday’s game, including seven in scoring position. They went just 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position and only one of those hits resulted in a run.
Otherwise, the Phillies scored on Utley’s homer and Ryan Howard’s one-out bomb in the third inning.
“We're giving ourselves numerous chances with men on base with the walks. In some regards we've lacked a big hit with multi-base runners, so I think that will come,” Sandberg said. “There's guys swinging the bat up and down the lineup and I think those opportunities will come and we'll come up with some hits and we'll put some numbers up with the men on base. We've stranded some also. Just having the chances and keep the threat and having their pitchers throw strikes to us and taking our walks, I think that all adds up. The chances are there. I think as guys are getting more comfortable and getting hot as a group, well come up with some more runs.”
The Phillies are scoring just a shade below five runs per game. If that holds up, the pitching will be that much more important. Kyle Kendrick allowed three runs (two earned) over six innings with three walks and seven strikeouts. He also threw 115 pitches -- his most since throwing a career-high 117 in a win against Colorado on Aug. 2, 2011.
The bullpen trio of B.J. Rosenberg, Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon closed it out with three perfect innings.
Next, the Braves come to town for a four-game series starting Monday night. Roberto Hernandez (1-0, 4.35) starts for the Phils against righty Ervin Santana (1-0, 0.00).