Utley and Ruiz help Phillies' offense come alive

Utley and Ruiz help Phillies' offense come alive
April 4, 2014, 9:00 pm
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Chase Utley hit his first home run of the season and had three RBIs and Carlos Ruiz drew two walks in the Phillies' 7-2 win over the Cubs Friday. (USA Today Images)

CHICAGO – Maybe all Chase Utley needed was to get out of Florida.

The veteran second baseman had miserable Grapefruit League results, hitting .175 (10 for 57) with just one extra-base hit in the Sunshine State.

Since exiting Florida, however, he has been on a tear.

It started a week ago in the team’s exhibition game against the Pirates at Citizens Bank Park. Utley had three hits, two of which were doubles.

Now, in four regular-season games, he is hitting .389 (7 for 18) with a double, a homer and four RBIs. He drove in three runs with a single and a two-run homer in Friday’s 7-2 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field (see game story).

Utley’s homer to right-center received a little push from 23-mph winds. Still, Utley has driven the ball well in the first four games after struggling to do so in Florida.

Ryne Sandberg said he was not worried about Utley in Florida. He believed his second baseman would be fine once he found his timing.

“Knowing Chase, he probably wanted to be right a little earlier in the spring,” Sandberg said. “But there are other things about him, getting in shape and doing everything else and feeling good. That was a big thing for me with him. I knew that he felt good all along and that he was in good shape. That was first and primary for me.”

Utley said he wasn’t worried either.

“Obviously you’d like to get results in spring training,” he said, “but being around for a while I know that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season.

“The last few games of spring training, I felt like I was swinging better. I just didn’t have the results.”

Now he does.

So does the entire Phillies’ offense.

Yes, it’s early and they haven’t faced dazzling pitching so far, but the Phillies are hitting .300 and averaging 6.5 runs. The team on-base percentage is .360.

Last year, the Phillies averaged just 3.77 runs. They hit .248 and had a .306 on-base percentage.

All those numbers ranked near the bottom in the NL.

“This is what I was hoping for,” Sandberg said. “I talked about the potential of the lineup, the balance of the lineup with Marlon Byrd and Chooch (Ruiz). We have speed at the top of the order. I saw the potential all the way through. Now, we have offense up and down the lineup. Not only that, but we're adding some bases on balls for on-base percentage. The guys are doing a good job making the pitchers throw strikes.”

Carlos Ruiz is hitting .308 (4 for 13) and has drawn five walks to fuel a .526 on-base percentage.

He has had two strong games in the No. 2 hole with Jimmy Rollins being out for the birth of his second daughter. Ruiz reached base four times out of the two spot Friday.

Would Sandberg look at Ruiz there more often, even after Rollins returns Saturday?

“Possibly,” Sandberg said. “You know what, he's a situational hitter in my opinion. Whatever spot he's in, I think he takes on that role. Maybe the fact he's batting second, it is a job to get on base and set the table for the other guys. He seems to have that knack.

"You bat him third, fourth or fifth and he has a different approach up there, driving the ball. He's very versatile.”

Ruiz does not run well. That doesn’t make him an ideal No. 2 hitter. But Sandberg doesn’t mind the lack of speed because Ruiz is a skilled baserunner.

“He's a good baserunner,” Sandberg said. “He's a heads-up runner. He works hard at his baserunning, with his leads. So (lack of speed) doesn't bother me at all. His ability to situational hit in that spot, and get a guy over, he's that type of hitter. He fits in there pretty good.”

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