Ordinary Utley turns things around with extraordinary power display
NEW YORK -- When
Despite that short stroke and unassuming build, Utley has averaged 29 home runs over the past five years, prompting teammates and opponents to wonder how such an ordinary-looking person can generate such extraordinary power. In Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night, Utley treated the Yankees to the optical illusion, hitting home runs to right field in his first two at-bats, one a wall-scraper and the other a no-doubter. The Phillies rolled to a 6-1 win and the new Yankee Stadium emptied early.
"I noticed some people left," Utley said with a tiny smile. "It was a little quieter."
Utley came into the week looking like a liability, having batted .211 in the National League Championship Series with two errors and no extra-base hits. He seemed to be favoring his right foot, which took a foul ball late in the regular season, and perhaps his right hip, which was surgically repaired last winter. But Utley is the kind of player known as a dirt dog, gritting his teeth through injuries and grinding through slumps. In his first at-bat against
The Phillies did to the Yankees what the Yankees usually do to everyone else, extending at-bats and wearing out pitchers. Meanwhile, Phillies starter
Utley has a stylish veneer, slicking back his hair before every game with L.A. Looks gel, but his approach is down-home. He does not make a lot of small talk, does not do a lot of interviews and studies tape even when he eats. "He's the most prepared player I've ever been around," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. Utley's swing is a portrait of simplicity -- miniscule stride, minimal follow-through -- which allows him to avoid extended slumps. When he gets two strikes, he chokes up and shortens his stroke even more than usual. Fittingly, both of his homers Wednesday were on two-strike counts.
Utley has been with the Phillies organization for nine years, and during that time, they have made only one substantive change to his mechanics. In July 2001, he was at Class A Clearwater, struggling to hit fastballs on the outside edge. Former batting cage
Utley and Lee have positioned the Phillies to put a chokehold on this series Thursday night, when they turn to Pedro Martinez, who has already made a scene without throwing a pitch. Martinez's pre-start press conference, always an attraction,
Martinez's rant ensures that he will be greeted with more of the same on Thursday. Either he will be inspired by the setting, as he was the day he struck out 17 at Yankee Stadium in 1999, or he will be rattled, as he was in '04. But at 38, on the verge of retirement, he has a chance to go out in a way that he only he could have imagined, while sitting at home in the Dominican Republic under one of his legendary mango trees.
Martinez is not the only one with mixed feelings about New York. At last year's All-Star Game, Utley entered the Home Run Derby, a competition that clearly made him uncomfortable. He hit just five balls over the fence at the old Yankee Stadium, and as he walked off the field to a cascade of boos, a microphone caught him cursing at the fans.
Like Martinez, Utley had something left for New York. He did not get to show the Yankees his power at the All-Star Game. He saved it for the World Series.