Ryan Howard on Chase Utley's epic return: 'Something bigger than a game tonight'

Ryan Howard on Chase Utley's epic return: 'Something bigger than a game tonight'


Chase Utley had walked to the plate at Citizens Bank Park 3,297 times in his career prior to Tuesday night, and rarely, if ever, did he express any outward emotion. That's just not in his DNA. Utley has always been a calm, collected player with almost intimidating stoicism. 

He'd walked to the plate in South Philly with Led Zeppelin's Kashmir playing nearly 3,300 times — during pennant pushes, elimination games and World Series — but when that same song played just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, the vibe was much different than it's ever been. For the first time, Utley was a visitor, batting in the top half of the inning and facing the team with which he spent 13 seasons. 

After receiving a two-minute standing ovation and tipping his helmet multiple times to the fans (watch introduction here), Utley struck out looking at a Vince Velasquez fastball. The fans booed. They were booing their own pitcher striking out the opposing leadoff hitter. 

Everyone expected the series opener, Utley's first game back in Philadelphia since he was traded to the Dodgers last August, to be surreal. But the uniqueness of the situation didn't really set in until seeing the fan reaction to his at-bats.

That first-inning strikeout "was probably one of the most nervous at-bats I've ever had at any level," Utley said. He referred to the tribute as "completely overwhelming" and was glad to get it out of the way.

"There's no doubt there's a little extra adrenaline that's flowing," Utley said. "Adrenaline can be your friend at times. After that first at-bat I was able to calm down a little bit and there you have it."

There you have it indeed. After striking out and flying out against Velasquez, Utley launched a 427-foot home run to right field in the fifth inning to put the Dodgers up two runs. The next inning, L.A. batted around, with Utley walking to begin the rally and hitting a grand slam to cap it in a 15-5 Dodgers' win (see Instant Replay).

Of course Utley homered twice in his long-awaited return to Philly (see story). He's a guy who has made a 14-year career out of delivering big hits in dramatic moments. The walk-off single in August of 2007 to complete the sweep over the Mets. The first-inning home run in Game 1 of the 2008 World Series. The two homers in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series. The moonshot to right field in San Francisco in 2009, two pitches after Jonathan Sanchez threw a fastball at his head. The first-inning home run in his first game back in 2012 after missing 75 with a knee injury.

It was almost expected that Utley would thrive under these strange conditions.

The fans were ecstatic to see Utley succeed even if it was in Dodger Blue. Utley received standing ovations and gave curtain calls after both home runs. For many in attendance, that will be the first and only time they ever see a visiting player coerced into giving a curtain call (see sights and sounds from the night).

"I think it was incredible," longtime teammate Ryan Howard said of the fan reaction. "I thought it was very classy by the fans. ... I think it just goes to show you can change the uniform but he's always going to be a Phillie at heart. And I think he's always going to be a Phillie to everyone here. I thought it was great, it was awesome for the fans to give him a curtain call again. It shows what he was able to do here and the impact he had on the fans."

Some of Utley's Dodgers teammates tried to hype up his return. Some didn't. Utley himself, in typical Chase Utley fashion, "tried to downplay it as much as possible." But he admitted "it's something I've been looking forward to for a long time."

"I should be thanking them," Utley said of the fans. "They motivated us, they pushed us in the right direction, and I'm a true believer that the fans made us better players individually and gave us a chance to win on a daily basis. The true thank you should be to them."

The lovefest between Utley and the 28,118 in attendance almost made the actual game an afterthought. There wasn't much concern over how Velasquez responded after last week's shellacking. Few were focused on the home runs by Cameron Rupp or Cesar Hernandez or frustrated to see Hernandez thrown out on the bases again. How many people will remember Elvis Araujo forcing in three runs with a bases-loaded hit by pitch and two walks?

"As players, we try to just continue to play the game as the game's supposed to be played. But I think it was something bigger tonight," Howard said. "I definitely think it was something bigger than a game tonight. For Chase to come back and do what he did tonight — hopefully he's done doing that — but that's just the kind of player he is and the kind of guy he is."

Howard did a little something, too. He hit a 422-foot blast into the Dodgers' bullpen in the bottom of the seventh for his 18th home run of the season and sixth since the All-Star break. Howard is red-hot, hitting .358 in the second half with 10 extra-base hits and 15 RBIs in 19 games.

Usually, when Howard and Utley homer in the same game, the Phillies win. Times have changed.

"It's crazy, man. I'm out there, we're trying to beat him but it's also tough too because I played so many years alongside him and always want to see him do well," Howard said. "I don't think you can script it any better for him."

Utley, 20 minutes later and in a different room, echoed the same sentiment.

"Any time Ryan hits a home run — obviously it was against us so it was bittersweet — but I'm definitely happy when Ryan's successful," Utley said. ... "I think there's some exceptions to be made. I talked to Ryan a little bit before the game, I talked to him when I was on first base. Any time I'm around him I'm gonna talk to him for sure. He's one of my better friends, and I'm happy that he's playing well right now."

Even someone like Velasquez, who isn't too familiar with Utley, understood the magnitude of what went down Tuesday night. To his credit, Velasquez retired Utley the first two times and kept the Dodgers in check through four innings. He unraveled in the fifth and sixth, but still feels grateful to have pitched in that environment.

"It's a good experience, it feels good to be a part of that," Velasquez said. "I don't really know the guy much myself, but to have an ovation like that is incredible.

"I understand, he's a legend here."

That he is. And on Tuesday night, the legend of Chase Utley, primetime performer, only grew.

Future Phillies Report: J.P. Crawford makes more sense at 3B than Scott Kingery

Future Phillies Report: J.P. Crawford makes more sense at 3B than Scott Kingery

The Future Phillies Report takes on a different look as September approaches. So many of the key players we've focused on this season — Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Nick Pivetta, Jesen Therrien — are now firmly entrenched with the big-league club.

At Triple A, Lehigh Valley's lineup has taken some hits as the aforementioned position players have been promoted, which was a reason Carlos Tocci was promoted to the IronPigs last week.

Sunday saw another interesting development with J.P. Crawford making his first start in the Phillies' organization at a defensive position other than shortstop (see story). We've explored this idea in recent weeks given the steps forward Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis have taken and the continued struggles of Maikel Franco.

So we'll start with the top prospect left at Triple A.

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
It's not how you start, it's how you finish, right? Well, Crawford is finishing this season strong.

Since July 1, Crawford has hit .306/.397/.595 with nine doubles, four triples, 11 homers, 25 walks and 37 strikeouts in 199 plate appearances.

It's gotten his season numbers back to a respectable place — Crawford is hitting .246/.352/.408 for an OPS 72 points higher than he had last season. Crawford had another multi-hit game Sunday, his seventh in his last 15 games. He's also been more sound in the field, committing just one error in his last 23 games. 

It makes a lot of sense to try Crawford out at third base at Triple A over the next few weeks and then potentially see what he's got at the hot corner in the majors in September. Franco just continues to show little improvement at the plate — and it's not as if we're looking merely at results, it's Franco's approach too. Franco is down to .224 with a .277 OBP on the season, and in only one month this season has Franco hit higher than .224 or had an OBP higher than .284.

Crawford would make more sense than Scott Kingery as a third baseman (at least while Galvis is still around) since Kingery's defense at second base is above average. Kingery has one error in his last 43 games.

Hernandez remains an offseason trade candidate, one who could probably fetch the Phillies a starting pitcher who can help.

2B Scott Kingery (AAA)
Kingery is 48 games into his stay at Triple A and is hitting .315/.347/.502.

He hit .313/.379/.608 with Double A Reading.

He's done it all — hit for power, hit for average, play great defense and run the bases well. In total, Kingery has 26 doubles, eight triples, 26 homers, 63 RBIs, 98 runs and 27 steals in 117 games this season.

This feels like a repeat of the Rhys Hoskins situation — the minor-leaguer is ready for the majors, just has no everyday spot.

For Kingery, the best avenues to everyday playing time early next season are either a trade of Hernandez, a trade of Franco or an injury to one of them. Hernandez should have trade value this winter as a leadoff hitter with on-base skills, speed and improving defense. With Franco, the Phillies would be selling low unless they deem that this is just who he is.

RHP Tom Eshelman (AAA)
After allowing eight runs in his return from the DL on Aug. 4, Eshelman has twirled two gems, allowing just one run and 11 baserunners in 13 innings.

Overall this season, Eshelman is 11-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 20 starts (five with Reading, 15 with Lehigh Valley). His trademark control has never been better — Eshelman has walked just 17 batters in 130 innings this season.

The Phillies face some tough starting pitching decisions this winter. Do they add a few veterans to improve the team and make Philly a more worthwhile destination for that star-studded 2018 free-agent class? Do they give Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson another half-season to stick in the rotation? None of those three has answered doubts or pushed his way into the Phillies' future plans yet.

Whatever the Phils do, Eshelman isn't far from the majors or far down the organizational depth chart.

Another reason you'll likely see Eshelman early in 2018 is that the Phillies are going to want to see some fruits of the Ken Giles trade. Velasquez hasn't panned out as a starting pitcher so far, nor has Mark Appel, and a trade that looked smart and promising at the time has been a win for the Astros and a loss for the Phillies two seasons later.

OF Dylan Cozens (AAA)
Perhaps if Cozens was hitting, he would have gotten the call to join the Phillies for a few days on the West Coast with Odubel Herrera injured. Instead, the Phillies chose to add Pedro Florimon to the 40-man roster last week rather than call up Cozens or Brock Stassi.

Cozens has not had a good year in his first taste of Triple A. After hitting .276/.350/.591 with 40 homers at Double A last season, he's hit .214/.302/.411 with 23 homers this season. He's on pace to strike out even more than he did last season, when he whiffed 186 times. He's already at 171 this season.

The guy is just in an awful slump. Since July 20, Cozens is 10 for 91 (.110) with 45 strikeouts and two extra-base hits. Add in some shaky defense and you get a player who needs more seasoning, or could maybe be used as a trade chip with the Phillies' outfield well set up for 2018 with Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams.

RHP Sixto Sanchez (High A Clearwater)
Sanchez, the Phillies' top pitching prospect, has made three starts with Clearwater since being promoted at the end of July and each has been better than the last.

• 6 innings, 10 hits (career high), 5 runs (career high), 0 walks, 3 strikeouts

• 6 innings, 6 hits, 3 runs, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts

• 6 innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 0 walks, 6 strikeouts (season-high 84 pitches)

It's interesting that with Sanchez's blazing fastball and above-average command, his strikeout total isn't very high. He's whiffed 77 batters in 85⅓ innings, a respectable rate of 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings, but a rate lower than you typically see from a pitcher who throws as hard as he does. Some of that is because he locates well early in counts and gets soft contact. Can't argue with efficiency.

Sanchez has pitched 85⅓ innings this season and is starting once a week at this point. The Phillies will be cautious with him and likely cap him right around 100 to 110 innings.

CF Mickey Moniak (Class A Lakewood)
Moniak's numbers continue to slide as he's enduring a brutal month of August. He's 8 for 59 (.136) this month and hasn't walked nearly enough to offset the offensive difficulties.

Moniak this season has hit .241/.292/.343 with an extra-base hit every 15.5 plate appearances. He has 27 walks and 98 strikeouts. 

Moniak, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, was recently joined at Lakewood by Adam Haseley, the Phillies' first-round pick in June. Haseley has been playing left field and batting a spot ahead of Moniak in the batting order. 

Keep in mind with both of these guys that this is by far the most baseball they've ever played in a calendar year so it's not surprising they're fading as the summer wears on. Moniak is one year removed from a high school schedule, while Haseley has already played 104 games in 2017 between the University of Virginia and the Phillies' system. With the Cavaliers, the most games he played in a season was 68.

RHP Seranthony Dominguez (High A Clearwater)
Dominguez had a 2.02 ERA in his first seven starts this season before experiencing shoulder soreness that kept him out two months. Since returning to Clearwater, he's allowed 12 runs, 24 hits and 14 walks in 19 innings.

Still, Dominguez has put himself on the map this season as an intriguing, 22-year-old pitching prospect with a high strikeout rate (74 K's in 60 innings).

LHP McKenzie Mills (High A Clearwater)
The Phillies' return in the Howie Kendrick trade, Mills has made three starts for Clearwater. The first two were very good — he followed five innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts and three runs over six innings — but he was shelled his last time out, allowing 11 hits and four runs in 4⅔ innings.

Mills' opponents have hit .356 over his last two starts, but he's been missing bats at a high rate (16 percent). Overall this season, he has a solid whiff rate of 14 percent; the league average is around 10 percent.

Mills' control continues to be outstanding. He hasn't walked a batter in four starts. Overall this season, he has 134 K's and 22 walks in 120⅓ innings.

Mills could potentially factor into the Phillies' pitching plans in a few years the way Nick Pivetta has this season, but the Nationals are much happier so far with how this trade turned out. Jonathan Papelbon was a disaster in Washington, but Kendrick's bat has kept the Nats afloat through a bunch of injuries lately.

LHP Nick Fanti (Class A Lakewood)
Another lefty with a sparkling K/BB ratio, Fanti is 7-2 with a 2.65 ERA, 108 strikeouts and 22 walks in 108⅔ innings this season. That includes his no-hitter on July 17 and his 8⅔ innings of no-hit ball on May 6. 

It's not like Fanti has had only a few great outings, either — he's allowed zero or one earned run(s) in 12 of 19 starts this season. Not bad for a 31st-round pick.

Fanti would probably be at Clearwater already if the Threshers' rotation wasn't so crowded with Sanchez, Dominguez, Mills, JoJo Romero and Ranger Suarez.

LHP JoJo Romero (High A Clearwater)
The 20-year-old has already moved pretty fast through the Phillies' system and if he keeps up his current pace, he'll likely be at Reading early in 2018.

Romero, the Phils' fourth-round pick in 2016, has adjusted seamlessly to High A. In seven starts with Clearwater, he's 3-2 with a 2.45 ERA, 38 strikeouts and 12 walks in 40⅓ innings. Those numbers are pretty close to what he was doing at Lakewood.

With a good sinker, Romero has gotten a lot of quick outs this season, which has enabled him to go deeper into games than some of his counterparts. Since arriving at Clearwater, he's held his opponent to 1, 0, 2, 0, 1 and 3 runs. In his lone poor outing, he gave up seven runs (five earned) on 12 hits in four innings.

For Rhys Hoskins, it all started with that first home run

For Rhys Hoskins, it all started with that first home run

SAN FRANCISCO — All Rhys Hoskins needed was to get the first one.
That's the way power hitters are.
They will tell you they don't think about hitting home runs.
But they do.
"As much as I want to say I wasn't trying to get the first one out of the way, I think it's probably pretty obvious that's what it was," Hoskins said after the Phillies beat the San Francisco Giants, 5-2, Sunday (see game story).
He was referring to his first 12 big-league at-bats during the Phillies' last homestand. He went hitless in those at-bats before reaching base on a single in his 13th at-bat and heading to his native California for seven games on his first big-league road trip.
Hoskins delivered. He went 8 for 25 with eight RBIs on the seven-game trip. He homered twice in the first game of the trip and three more times before it ended, including on Saturday and Sunday in the Phillies' only two wins of the trip.
"I feel like I'm getting into better counts and the results showed this week," the 24-year-old said.
Manager Pete Mackanin said he was never worried about Hoskins being over his head.
"You know how that goes," he said. "You can't jump to conclusions after 20 at-bats. You might say he's hitting .220 (actually .237), but we can tell from his at-bats he's a much better hitter than that."
Hoskins hit 38 homers at Double A Reading last season and 29 more at Triple A Lehigh Valley before coming up earlier this month. After 11 games — and five homers — he feels more like himself.
"I just wanted to settle in the box and feel more comfortable in the box and realize it really is the same game, 60 feet, six inches, they still have to throw the ball over the plate," he said. "I think that has a lot to do with it."
Hoskins had two hits in Sunday's win, including a home run. He played first base, his natural position. Jorge Alfaro played there Saturday night as manager Pete Mackanin held slumping Tommy Joseph out of the lineup two days in a row. Joseph is hitting just .185 against left-handed pitching this season and Mackanin kept him away from lefties Ty Blach and Madison Bumgarner.
With a doubleheader Tuesday against Miami, and two righties pitching for the Marlins, Mackanin is sure to use Joseph in at least one of those games.
But how about beyond that? Alfaro has produced at the plate over the last two days and the team officials want to continue to see him. He was already slated to get time behind the plate, but first base has also become a place for him to get occasional at-bats, as it is for Hoskins, as well.
How is this all going to shake out?
Mackanin said Hoskins "most likely" would continue to get most of his reps in left field, where he's been OK, despite a couple of bad reads, for a relative newcomer to the position.
Then Mackanin added: "Let me have the day off (Monday) to think about it. We'll see how we can make this all work."