ST. PETERSBURG-When most people think of the Phillies, the first two players who come to mind are the guys who flank Chase Utley on the infield. First baseman Ryan Howard is the Phillies’ megastar; he mashes tape-measure home runs, piles up lots of RBI, and was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2005 and Most Valuable Player a year after that. He even stars in Subway commercials. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is considered the Phillies’ heart and soul; he anchors the infield at shortstop, sends drives screaming into the gaps, steals bases, and succeeded Howard by winning the NL MVP in 2007.
Then there’s Utley at second base. All he has done is to compile some of the best offensive numbers of anyone to ever man the position while also playing Gold Glove-worthy defense, though seemingly no one outside of Philadelphia thinks he is deserving of the award. In addition to never winning a Gold Glove, Utley has never received serious consideration for the NL MVP. His highest finish in the annual voting of the Baseball Writers Association of America was in 2006, when he placed seventh.
It’s likely that Utley will not finish high in the MVP voting again this year when the results are announced next month. While Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols should be the easy winner, there are plenty of Howard backers who feel that he is worthy of his second MVP in three years after he helped drive the Phillies to the NL East title with a .352/.422/.852 September as they overtook the Mets for a second straight year in the season’s final month. However, WARP3, a measure of a player’s overall worth, shows that Utley was not just better than Howard this season, but nearly twice as good; Utley’s WARP3 was 10.6 to Howard’s 5.4.
While Utley continues to be vastly underrated by the national media, he is at least appreciated in his own clubhouse. They praise his quiet and intense nature, his unselfishness, and another season spent sacrificing his body, around the bag, on the bases, and at the plate. He is the rare scrappy player who is also an MVP-caliber hitter. “You saw who got the big hit tonight, the guy who really got us going, didn’t you?” Rollins asked with a smile. “It was Chase. He set the tone. He always comes through when you need him. He’s not just a great player, but so dependable. You can count on him every single day of the year.”
Utley hit a two-run home run that, along with strong pitching by October sensation Cole Hamels and the bullpen, enabled the Phillies to edge the Rays 3-2 on Wednesday night in Game One of the World Series at Tropicana Field, ruining the first Fall Classic game played on Florida’s Gulf Coast. With one out in the first inning, Jayson Werth drew a walk from Scott Kazmir, and Utley then attempted a bunt on the first pitch, but fouled it off. That was vintage Utley, a left-handed hitter giving up the chase for personal glory because he thought he had a better chance to get a hit off of a tough left-handed pitcher by laying one down. “The third baseman and shortstop were playing back, and I thought it was a good opportunity to bunt for a hit, to try to create something there,” Utley said. “It was the first inning, so I thought the more base runners the better.” A two-run home run can also help the cause, and five pitches later Utley drove a 2-2 fastball into the right-field seats to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead, quieting the cowbell-ringing crowd of 40,783. “That was huge,” Howard said. “We’re on the road in the first game of the World Series, and their fans were just going crazy. That home run settled any of the nerves we might have had to start the game.”
Being a calming influence is one of Utley’s calling cards; he is a steady presence who never seeks the spotlight. While the rest of world saw Utley come through with a big hit in his first plate appearance on baseball’s biggest stage, he was unfazed. “Obviously, it feels pretty good to hit a home run in my first World Series at-bat, but our goal was to try to score some runs early,” Utley said “We were trying to take the crowd out of it because they were intense and loud. I thought we did a good job. And Cole did a wonderful job, again.”
They say there is no ‘I’ in team, and there is no ‘I’ in Chase Utley either-that was all he would say about becoming the 34th player to homer in his first World Series plate appearance, while finishing the night with two hits and two stolen bases. The modesty didn’t surprise Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who gladly extols the virtues of Utley for as long as anyone is willing to listen. Manuel claims, and those around the Phillies will verify, that he has never heard Utley utter a word of self-praise throughout his three-season tenure as manager.
“He’s a good player, and he’s the type of player who you’ve got to sit and watch day in and day out to enjoy how good he really is,” Manuel said. “I think he’s one of the best players in the game, and I think anytime he can do well and get national exposure that it’s going to help him get noticed a little more. What’s amazing about him is that he doesn’t care about publicity. As long as he gets to play and we win the game, that’s his only concern. I know he has the determination and the mindset to be good, and I know he has to think to himself that he’s good, but he loves to play and win. That’s it.”
While opponents go out of their way to pitch around Howard, who hits in the cleanup spot directly behind Utley in the Phillies’ batting order, the Rays’ advance scouts let manager Joe Maddon know that Utley can be just as dangerous. “If you look at the overall breakdown, Utley hit righties and lefties pretty much the same,” Maddon said. “Coming into the series, I go off what I read and off video, because I don’t see them enough to have a strong opinion. Howard can put them in the stands, and so can Utley. He’s got a good approach. They’re both very good, so pick your poison.”
Carlos Ruiz drove in a run with a ground out in the fourth inning to increase the Phillies’ lead to 3-0, giving Hamels enough of a cushion to raise his 2008 post-season record to 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts. The Rays rallied when Carl Crawford hit a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth and Akinori Iwamura singled in a run in the fifth to draw within a run of the Phillies’ lead, but Hamels checked Tampa Bay through the seventh and Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge finished with one perfect inning each.
Lidge is now 47-for-47 in save opportunities this year, converting all 41 in the regular season and six more in October, but it was Hamels who again helped the Phillies get an early lead in a post-season series; he also won Game One of the National League Division Series against the Brewers, and Game One of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. Hamels allowed two runs and five hits in his seven innings, with two walks and five strikeouts. He now has 27 strikeouts in 29 October innings, and is the fourth pitcher in post-season history to win four games in his first four starts, joining Dave Stewart of the 1989 Athletics, David Wells of the 1998 Yankees, and Josh Beckett of the 2007 Red Sox. “Cole is pretty good, man. I’m glad he pitches for us,” Manuel said with a grin. “When I think about how he pitched tonight, that’s kind of like just a regular game for him. He can be a lot better. He can be a little bit sharper, but he was still very good.”
Hamels got some help from his defense as they turned two doubles plays on at-bats by the speedy B.J. Upton, including an around-the-horn gem started by third baseman Pedro Feliz with the bases loaded that ended a third-inning threat. Hamels also picked Carlos Pena off of first base after he had reached on Howard’s error to start the sixth, though Maddon argued that a balk should have been called.
Reflecting on the outcome, Maddon said of Hamels, “He was on top of his game. He’s a very impressive young man. The thing was he didn’t make any mistakes. He has a power changeup and didn’t hang any of them. They were where he wanted to throw them. More power to him. He had a great game.”
Hamels, though, gave the biggest share of the credit to Utley. “Us being able to score some runs early helped my game out, because it lessened the pressure and put me at a point where I couldn’t really do much else but allow myself to go out there and keep pitching,” Hamels said. “It gave me some breathing room, and I was able to mix my fastball and changeup and curveball, try to keep the hitter off balance, and put them in a position where they had to try to make adjustments.”
The Rays never quite made the adjustments needed against Hamels, and the Phillies now lead the series 1-0, a matter of significance since 10 of the last 11 teams who have won Game One have gone on to become world champions. “It’s good to come in here, win the first one, and hold a very dangerous lineup to two runs,” Lidge said. “I don’t think the Rays are going to roll over. They’re a very dangerous team, and there is a long way to go in this series. That’s why it was important to get the upper hand early.”