Utley was a lot better than Phillies' bullpen
There were two separate stories percolating at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night.
Chase Utley was making his long-awaited season debut. It was a very important story because Utley is very important to the Phillies’ chances of rescuing what has so far been a disappointing 2012 season.
The other interesting drama featured the decision of Phillies management to try to get through the night on the arms of a bullpen that entered the game with a 4.41 ERA, the sixth-worst in the majors.
The decision to go with the bullpen proved to be a huge blunder and Charlie Manuel did not hide from it.
“It backfired and we got lit up,” the manager said after his team’s troubling 11-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates (see game recap)
While Tyler Cloyd, headed for the Triple A All-Star Game and 10-1 with a 2.07 ERA between Double A and Triple A this season, sat in Allentown preparing to pitch on Thursday night, a band of relievers gave up runs early in the game and again late in the game to seal the Phillies’ fate. The Phils’ bats were resilient and scrappy, coming back from an 8-2 deficit to make it a one-run game in the seventh, but the bullpen never gave the offense a chance to come back all the way. Ultimately, reliever Chad Qualls let all the air out of the balloon when he gave up three runs in the eighth inning.
The bullpen spoiled what was almost a perfect homecoming for Utley, who missed the first 76 games while rehabbing his chronically sore knees.
“It was a good first step,” Utley said of his three-hit night. “Obviously, winning could have been more ideal, but we’ll come back at ‘em tomorrow.”
In storybook fashion, Utley homered deep into the seats in right-center in his first big-league at-bat since Oct. 7. He added singles in the sixth and seventh inning. He ran the bases hard. He ran down a pair of pop-ups. He even executed a hard take-out slide at second base, and the sellout crowd loved it all – until the bullpen dropped a stink bomb on the party.
“It was a good test,” Utley said afterward. “There were a couple of [pop-ups] I had to get to down the line, and I was fairly active on the bases. So far, so good.”
Perhaps the most encouraging part of Utley’s night was the pop he showed in his bat. Plagued by similar knee issues last season, he was limited to 103 games and his power numbers (11 home runs and a .425 slugging percentage) dipped to the lowest they’d been in his time as a regular player. Utley’s knee condition prevented him from strengthening his legs last season and it showed in his inability to drive the ball with authority.
Utley has learned a lot about his knee condition over the past year and recent months on the sidelines have allowed him to build the leg strength that he did not have last year. The strength showed in the way he drove the ball, first out of the park and later on a fly ball to deep center, Wednesday night.
“I’ve worked a lot to get my legs stronger and I still feel there’s room for improvement,” he said. “But I have a good base to build on.”
Utley acknowledged the crowd that supported him with a standing ovation before his first at-bat. He said the night was emotional for him.
“It’s been a long road to get to this point,” he said.
Utley is often purposely bland when talking with reporters, but for the second time in three days he showed some feistiness during his postgame interview session. On Monday, he warned folks not to write him off and give up on him. After Wednesday’s game, he acknowledged that he has derived motivation from those who doubt him.
“One-hundred percent,” he said. “Anybody who knows me knows what kind of guy I am. I put a lot of work into this. Obviously it’s a frustrating situation. I never wanted to be in this situation in the first place, but I have to battle through it. I feel like I’ve done a good job so far and hopefully I can continue to.”
Utley won’t start on Thursday afternoon. The plan calls for him to go two games on and one off for a while, until he gets his legs under him.
“Initially, we’ll play it smart, take a day off here and there,” he said. “But, hopefully, I can get to the point where I can play the majority of the games. That’s my goal.”