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'

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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.

Best of MLB: Josh Reddick's big day helps Astros sweep A's

Best of MLB: Josh Reddick's big day helps Astros sweep A's

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Josh Reddick homered and scored four runs, Jake Marisnick and Marwin Gonzalez each went deep and the Houston Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 12-9 on Thursday.

The major league-leading Astros completed a four-game sweep with their 10th straight victory in Oakland and their 15th win in 16 games against the A's overall. They've won 12 of their last 14 road games. Their 27-8 record away from home is the best in the majors.

Reddick also doubled, tripled and drew a walk, and Marisnick and Gonzalez each drove in three runs.

David Paulino (2-0) struck out six and gave up three runs, seven hits and two walks. The 23-year-old rookie right-hander struck out five of his first six batters in his sixth career start.

Astros center fielder George Springer left with a left hand contusion after being struck by a fastball from Jesse Hahn (3-5) leading off the game. The ball also grazed Springer's left shoulder. Springer is tied for second in the AL with 21 home runs. His status is day-to-day (see full recap).

Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks blast Rockies
DENVER -- Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Owings hit three-run homers, Zack Godley threw well into the eighth inning, and the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the Colorado Rockies 10-3 on Thursday.

Goldschmidt finished with three hits and four RBIs to increase his season total to 64, tops in the majors.

Arizona took two of three in the NL West matchup and is now tied with Colorado for second place in the division behind the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks have won 12 of 14 and are a season-high 19 games above .500.

Godley gave up a home run to Charlie Blackmon to lead off the first inning, but shut down the Rockies from there.

Blackmon drew a walk in the third, then Godley erased him with a double-play ball to end the inning. He didn't allow a hit after Nolan Arenado's one-out single in the first and retired 19 of the next 20 batters before Raimel Tapia and Pat Valaika singled and doubled to lead off the eighth.

Godley (3-1) allowed three runs on four hits and struck out eight in seven-plus innings. He also helped himself with an RBI single in the eighth.

The Diamondbacks hit a Colorado rookie pitcher hard for the second straight night. Wednesday they scored 10 runs in the fourth off Jeff Hoffman, and Thursday they battered right-hander Antonio Senzatela (9-3) for nine runs in five innings.

Owings' homer in the third, his ninth, made it 5-1, and Goldschmidt hit his 18th to cap a four-run fourth to make it 9-1 (see full recap).

Knebel sets strikeout mark as Brewers top Pirates
MILWAUKEE -- Corey Knebel broke Arodlis Chapman's modern-era record for most consecutive games by a reliever with a strikeout at a season's start, fanning a batter for the 38th straight game and closing out the Milwaukee Brewers' 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday.

Knebel struck out Josh Bell on a foul tip leading off the ninth. The 25-year-old right-hander retired Elias Diaz and Andrew McCutchen on popouts, finishing a four-hitter for his 12th save in 15 chances.

Chapman had set the mark since 1900 as part of a streak of 49 games for Cincinnati that began in August 2013 and ended the following August.

Travis Shaw drove in three runs with a homer and two doubles, and he came within inches of a second home run.

Chase Anderson (6-2) allowed two runs and two hits in six innings (see full recap).

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Odubel Herrera’s return to the dugout was so slow that home plate umpire Nic Lentz had to clap to speed him along. Herrera obliged, accelerating to an effortless jog until he left Lentz’s sight. Then he went back to a hung head and a crawling pace as he reached the steps. Boos met his ears through it all. 

Herrera was picked off third base by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for the second out of the fourth inning on Thursday. It didn’t matter much as the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), guided by Aaron Nola’s the best outing in a long time (see story)

However, Herrera made a base-running blunder at the same spot Wednesday night, when he blew through a Juan Samuel stop sign and was out by a mile at home plate to make the final out in the ninth inning of a tie game. And later on Thursday, while on second during a running count and Maikel Franco behind him at first, Herrera didn’t run on the pitch.

These are mistakes any big-leaguer should avoid. And when he’s the only player a team has signed to a long-term deal, which is supposed to last into a new era that involves winning games, the mistakes sting a bit more. 

“I’m not pleased about it,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. 

Had Wednesday night’s gaffe been avoided, maybe the Phillies could have gone on to win. Thursday’s was more embarrassing than damaging. While displeased, Mackanin, who said he thought about giving Herrera Thursday off, understood what happened this time around.

“He was running contact. And when you’re running contact, you’re susceptible to getting picked off by a catcher, especially with a left-handed hitter up,” Mackanin said. “You have to be aware of that. They’re taught to be aware of that. He just didn’t take that first hard step back. And that deters the catcher from throwing to third base. It happened.” 

The Phillies have been picked off eight times this season. Entering Thursday, only four teams had been picked off more. 

The Phillies own a run scoring percentage (percentage of base runners that eventually score) of 28.0, which puts them in the bottom third of the league. While much of that can be attributed to bad bats, mistakes like Herrera’s are not helping the cause. 

At 25, Herrera is still figuring this whole thing out. But he was the Phillies’ only All-Star last year and is supposed to be a consistent presence in the lineup. 

Andres Blanco, on the opposite end of the spectrum, first saw major-league action in 2004, and should be providing a consistent presence in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Yet on Thursday, starting at second base instead of Howie Kendrick, Blanco made a veteran play on the base paths, which felt like the remedy to Herrera’s mental lapses.

In the bottom of the fifth, with two outs and Blanco on second base, Freddy Galvis grounded a ball up the middle. Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz sent an errant flip to second to get the final out, and Blanco was smart enough to round third and score after the ball got loose in the infield. Mackanin called it a heads-up play. 

“That’s the kind of players you’re looking for, the guys that are going to look for those kinds of things to happen,” Mackanin said, “and they don't assume a play is going to be made and assume they might be able to take an extra base.

“He’s a veteran. I’m glad he paid attention.”