It's a warm evening in July, and somewhere, on a patch of dirt in South Philadelphia, the base runner kicks at the ground, deliberately taking a few steps off the first base bag as he intently watches the pitcher from under the brim of his helmet, lengthening his stride as the pitcher's left arm cocks back. The ball is delivered – WHACK -- the batter connects with the offering, sending a line drive over the first baseman's head, where it bounds down the line, skipping across the grass before softly careening off the wall in the right field corner. The outfielder retrieves the ball and fires it towards the infield, where it is relayed to home plate and into the hands of the waiting catcher – too late, as it were, as the base runner crossed the plate only a moment earlier, after scoring all the way from first base to give the home team their first run of the evening.
The base runner, as you may have gathered, was Chase Utley, and that pristine base running is only one of the reasons that Phillies fans can breathe a bit easier these days, knowing that second base is no longer a revolving door or a question mark, like it had been earlier in the season.
Utley, one of the cornerstones of this current crop of Phillies, was a bit of an afterthought when the season kicked off in April
, thanks to a knee injury that left many wondering whether or not the five-time All-Star would ever really return to form as the player that was arguably one of the game's best players for the better part of the last seven years. While he was expected to return from the get-go, how effective could a thirty-something second baseman with an injury history actually be?
That question, it seems, has been answered.
Not only did Chase showcase his offensive talents in Tuesday night's win over the San Francisco Giants
, where he went 2-for-4 with an RBI and a pair of runs, he also showcased his vastly underrated base running skills by going first-to-home on a double, and then home-to-home on an inside-the-park homer. It’s one of the most overlooked things about his game, which is expected, considering how much else he does on the field.
But even before Tuesday night’s show, The Man – a moniker bestowed upon him by the late, great Harry Kalas
– was very quietly getting the job done with the bat. Excepting the first 16 games of Chase Utley's return, (which one could reasonably view as his spring training) the second baseman has done nothing but hit to the tune of a .308/.397/.538 line over his next 35 games, with five homers, 22 RBIs, 11 doubles, and for good measure, a pair of triples.
Stretch those numbers over a full season, and you're looking at 23 homers, 101 RBIs, 51 doubles, and nine triples, which is about what we've come to expect from Utley over the course of his career, save for a few points of batting average here and there.
His success, which has gone somewhat unnoticed thanks to this pitching rotation you may have heard about, has really been one of the best things about the 2011 Phillies season. When word came down that he was dealing with a knee injury that may never fully heal, a cloud came over the city that dampened the high hopes brought on by the historic rotation. How could this team go on without Chase? How could they deal without his production, both with the glove and the bat? Who would be the silent leader whose intensity is matched only by his innate ability to transcend the game? Who would replace Chase?
For now, the Phillies don't need to worry about that. The Man has returned.