Utley sets the tone for the champs

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 29, 2009


In what should not have been a shock, but may have caught some here as a stunning pre-Halloween trick, the Philadelphia Phillies showed why they are the current world champs with a 6-1 win in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night.

As for the New York Yankees, they demonstrated why, in key ways, they are still an inexperienced postseason team, with a young and easily traumatized bullpen, that is still trying to find its confidence on an extremely precarious stage. Now that's scary.

The most appropriate of all the ornery Phillies -- Chase Utley -- announced his team to Broadway. The gritty second baseman, probably Philly's best all-around player and surely its toughest customer, crashed two home runs off Yankees ace CC Sabathia to set the tone of this night.

If the Yanks don't rebut quickly, Utley may have set the pattern of this whole confrontation as well. After all, this is exactly what he did all of last October. In the Phillies' three postseason series during their '08 title run, Utley was the first-game hitting hero every time. In each game, he drove in two runs; the Phils won, 3-1, 3-2, 3-2. Nine Philadelphia runs, six Utley RBI. The Phils only lost one game in each of those series.

Now, the Phils' tight-lipped leader is back at it, driving in the first two runs of this Series. With his solo blasts, Utley punctuated New York's $161 million free agent southpaw twice with exclamation points of his own. In the whole history of the series only one left-handed hitter ever hit two Series homers in a game off a left-handed pitcher: Babe Ruth. Now, it's Babe and Chase.

The Phils love that Utley deflects credit, plays hurt, loves to irritate foes and seems to enjoy nothing better than standing on top of the plate and getting hit by a pitch (a league-leading 24).

"He had a good night tonight," deadpanned Manager Charlie Manuel. "He's the most prepared player I've ever been around."

As for Utley himself, he wasn't aware, and didn't care, that he'd tied a Ruth record or that he'd set a postseason record for most consecutive games getting on base. "Didn't know that," he said. "It doesn't matter that much."

In Utley's world, the night was simple. He looked for fastballs. He got two of them that were over the plate. The first, he "squeaked over the fence" in the right field corner in the third inning. In the fifth, he hit a monster bomb on an 0-2 pitch, at least 430 feet, that landed five rows above the Modell's sign that is 15 rows up in the right field bleachers. Nobody interrogated Utley about it directly, so he conveniently forgot to mention it.

"I noticed some people left as the game went along," he said. "It was a little quieter." Somewhere, between the lines in that droll quote, you'll probably find Utley.

As a book end to Utley's effort, Phils lefty Cliff Lee silenced the Yanks on six hits, allowed only an unearned run in the ninth, fanned 10, walked none and racked up his fourth straight victory of this postseason. Other than that, he was just all right. No doubt he planted the thought in Yankee minds that, while Sabathia may weigh 290 pounds, the slim 6-foot-3 Lee is quite a load himself.

Lee is the anti-Utley. He snagged a ground ball behind his back. He made a nonchalant catch of a pop-up Willie Mays style. He playfully tagged out Jorge Posada on the rear end. Basically, he spent the whole night having a relaxed ball in the same $1.5 billion park where the Twins and Angels had acute stage fright this month.

"I try not to go over the edge and rub things in and be cocky, but I definitely have confidence," said Lee, all grins to Utley's pursed lips. "About being cool or whatever, I've always been that way. This is the same game I've been playing my whole life. This is the stage I've wanted. Now I'm here. I've already put all the work in. There's no sense being nervous and worried."

Just try to show a pulse, will you, Cliff? In the last all-star game played in the old Yankee Stadium, the winning pitcher was Lee -- in his first all-star game. In the first game played at the new Yankee Stadium, the winning pitcher, beating Sabathia, was Lee.

"I think it's just ironic," said Lee.

If you're the Yanks, you may think it's a bad sign that the Phils' best pitcher may get license plates that read: "LuvYankStad."

While the Phils' bullpen never had to stand up all night, the Yankees gave up a deluge of four runs in the eighth and ninth as the Phils treated five New York relievers with complete disdain. Granted, none of them was named Mariano Rivera. But all of them are supposed to be the bridge to Rivera. Unless they do far better, there may be games in this Series where that is a bridge too far.

The Yanks spent $423 million on big-name free agent starters and sluggers last winter. How much did they spend on Phil Hughes, Brian Bruney and David Robertson, $12.95? They faced nine hitters, seven reached base and four scored. Meanwhile, the Phils, who were supposed to have the bullpen problems, have solid starters Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ for middle relief if needed.

So, say hello to the Phillies. While Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were going 0 for 8, every important Phillies bat was getting untracked, including a pair of doubles for Ryan Howard and two RBI for Jayson Werth. Does it matter? In a short series, you better believe it matters. As soon as the Yanks win a game, this may become a long, wonderful Series.

But the Yanks better leave a very early wake-up call for Thursday because if they drop both games here, everything changes. They'll have 16 million critics here, 50,000 lunatics waiting at Citizens Bank Park and a Phillies team that knows its good and would love to bag the Yanks.

Some teams hate it here. Los Angels made five errors to give away two games. The Phils seem to be having a ball all night. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins even pulled a trick prank, turning a soft infield liner into two outs as the Yanks looked around confused.

"We know he's very good," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said of Lee. "But one thing is he can't pitch every day."

Which brings us to the Phils' Game 2 pitcher -- Pedro Martínez -- who may be the fulcrum of this Series. He's old at 37. He was unwanted just four months ago. But he's refreshed by a summer with little work, has his fastball back as high as 94 mph, after pitching at 87 to 91 in his days of battling the Yanks as a member of the Red Sox.

Oh, he has a grudge to settle. Get ready: Game 2 that should positively crackle with "Who's Your Daddy" chants.

"I have all the respect in the world for the way they enjoy being fans" at Yankees Stadium, Martínez said Wednesday. "Sometimes they might be giving you the middle finger, just like they will be cursing you and telling you what color underwear you're wearing. I don't have any problem with that.

"I might be at times the most influential player that ever stepped in Yankee Stadium," added Martínez. "When you have 60,000 people chanting your name, waiting for you to throw the ball, you have to consider yourself someone special."

Then, Martínez showed his true feelings. "The way you guys [in the New York media] have used me and abused me since I've been coming [here] just because I wore a red uniform, just like this [Phils] one, while playing for Boston."

Hold that thought, Pedro. Let the boil build.

"This will be a special occasion for me," he said.

Martínez will not be able to drive a stake entirely through the hearts of the Yankees in Game 2. He may even want to do the deed too much. But thanks to Utley and Lee, he will have a chance, one he's waited years for, to finish half the job.

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