Chase Utley’s bat may have gone missing in the series loss to Cincinnati, but his spirit was alive in a team that never quit.
If the Phillies miss the playoffs, poor starting pitching will absorb most of the blame. However, don’t forget the first two months where deficient glove work and obtuse base running proved costly. Probably "4-games out of the Wild Card" costly.
It wasn’t long ago that readers issued serious concern over Ryan Howard’s glove. In a town like Philadelphia, lapses in the field won’t go unnoticed, no matter how many balls clear left field. It’s hard to believe Howard went through a stretch of May games that caused fans to grumble about his cool and casual approach. Words like "outfield" and "platoon" flew like darts. Radio hosts were worried he’d cross into "the Dark Side," where Bobby Abreu apparently played the role of Darth Vader.
Today, Howard – once rated the best defensive first basemen when he played in Triple-A – is probably the most improved fielder since the first half of the season.
If Chase Utley is the new face of the Phillies, Howard is the poster boy for the team’s metamorphosis under their new captain. In the words of Baseball Tonight analyst John Kruk, the former Phillies first baseman said the team is taking on the personality of their best player:
"Every time you think of the Yankees, it starts with Derek Jeter, and everything with the Phillies starts with Chase Utley," Kruk said. "I came to the Phillies two weeks before Mike Schmidt retired, and everybody on the team had the attitude of Schmidt, which was laid back and cool. It works if you are Mike Schmidt because he is a Hall of Famer, but the others on the team weren't great players. Bobby was a great player, but he was laid back, and the others on the Phillies often acted like that. Now the younger kids will see Utley busting his [behind] every play, taking out guys at second, never giving up, and they feel that is how you play the game."
Poignant commentary from Krukker. This is clearly the hardest they’ve played in 2006. On any given night, the lineup is peppered with players with something to prove: David Dellucci, Shane Victorino, Abraham Nunez. The real beauty is that players with job security - Howard, Rollins, and of course, Utley - are bleeding right there with them.
Giving 110 percent is more than lip service for the blue collar mob. Defense is a huge part of baseball, especially with a starting staff like the Phillies, where pitchers like Jon Lieber put an awful lot of balls in play.
After the Reds series, there can be no doubt that the team is grinding. While the one-on-one match-ups between pitchers and hitters prove difficult to measure in these terms, hustle and focus are plain as day in two important areas: defense and base running.
Starting with base running: The defining moment of the second half came when Utley scored from second on a high chopper to the pitcher (pictured above). What a beautiful scene that must have been. Since then, I dare anyone to identify a player who hasn’t busted it on the bases. They’ve rallied for big innings and have scored runs at an enormous rate.
Defensively, Rollins and Nunez are shutting down the left side. What a treat it was to watch J-Roll live yesterday. He absorbed every strike his way.
Shane Victorino has the gift of turning doubles into singles. He did this yesterday on a bullet hit by Ken Griffey Jr. Between Aaron Rowand and Victorino, the gaps at Citizens Bank Park have never been smaller.
Ever notice how Utley is always in the right place at the right time. I doubt this is a coincidence. He plays with a cat-like awareness I’ve only read about in David Halberstam books.
If the Phillies indeed miss the playoffs, starting pitching will rightfully absorb the blame. However, it’s interesting to think where they’d stand if the torch was passed a little earlier.