Thursday October 29th, 2009

NEW YORK -- When Chase Utley was playing whiffle ball games on Ashbrook Avenue in Long Beach, the best home-run hitter in the neighborhood was Sean Burroughs. In high school at Long Beach Poly, it was Milton Bradley. In college at UCLA, it was Eric Byrnes. With the Phillies, it's Ryan Howard. Utley was always regarded as the scrapper, never the slugger, noted more for his line drives than big blasts. Former coaches described him as skinny, scrawny, lanky and wiry. He grew to 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, but refused to think of himself as a deep threat, not with a swing as compact as a karate chop.

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 CC Sabathia, he homered on the sixth pitch he saw. In his second at-bat, he homered on the ninth. At that point, Sabathia had thrown 54 pitches, and more than 25 percent of them were to Utley. Because of Sabathia's high pitch count, he only lasted seven innings, and the Phillies tacked on four runs against the Yankees bullpen.

The Phillies did to the Yankees what the Yankees usually do to everyone else, extending at-bats and wearing out pitchers. Meanwhile, Phillies starter Cliff Lee could have gone all night. Sprinkling fastballs with cutters and change-ups with curves, he pitched the first complete game in a World Series in six years [Josh Beckett in 2003] and struck out nine, including Alex Rodriguez three times. Lee was so comfortable at Yankee Stadium, he made a basket catch on a pop fly and fielded a grounder behind his back, punctuating it with a grin. "About being cool or whatever," Lee said, "I've always been that way."

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 John Morris urged him to stand closer to the plate -- as close as he could without touching it -- and that night Utley hit three doubles against Dunedin. Utley still crowds the plate, and when Sabathia tried to go away from him Wednesday, he yanked the ball out. For the second straight year, Utley started the Phillies scoring in the World Series, and he became the first left-handed hitter to post two homers off a lefty pitcher in a World Series game since Babe Ruth.

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, turned unbelievable Wednesday afternoon, when he chided the New York media, invoked the name of Don Zimmer, and reviewed one more time the origin of "Who's your daddy?" It was Martinez unplugged, rambling but entertaining, setting a theatric tone for Game 2.

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.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.