Chase Utley’s Experience and Mentorship Pivotal to Dodgers’ Playoff Run
It was Game 2 of the 2015 National League Division Series against the New York Mets. The Dodgers, who were already trailing 1-0 in the series found themselves behind 2-1 in the bottom of the 7th inning of a must-win battle. With one out and runners on first and second, Howie Kendrick grounded into what was possibly an inning-ending double play.
Chase Utley, the runner on first, slid hard into the second base bag on the ground ball and successfully broke up the twin killing. This kept the inning alive. Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez followed with consecutive doubles to give the Dodgers a lead they would never relinquish, and our boys in blue tied the series.
It was an important and significant win for the Dodgers, but it wouldn’t have been possible if not for Utley’s infamous slide. It was the same slide that is arguably the most controversial in baseball history, and has forever changed the rules of the game.
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Many people called it a dirty play, as Mets short stop Ruben Tejada suffered a broken leg that would keep him out the remainder of the postseason. I call it a hard-nosed, gritty play that would make former champions like Pete Rose, George Brett, and Kirk Gibson applaud and smile.
It was a play that will forever cement Utley’s legacy as a Dodger, however brief it may be. For Utley, it was exactly the way he knows baseball is supposed to be played.
“I ran hard to try to break up a double play,” Utley said after the game. “I feel terrible that he was injured. I had no intent to hurt him whatsoever.”
Whether people think it was a dirty play or not, it was proof to the Dodgers that Utley is the type of player the team needs in the clubhouse. At 37 years of age, the former Philadelphia Phillies second baseman clearly isn’t the player he once was.
He appeared in five consecutive all-star games from 2006-2010 and played an important role in the Phillies run to two straight World Series appearances with a championship in 2008.
Now, what Utley lacks in ability, he makes up for in intangibles.
“The leadership, the attention to detail he has for the game – that was a huge boost for us down the stretch and into the playoffs [2015 NLDS] and was an important thing for us to get back,” Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi said after Utley signed a one-year deal this past offseason. “He just has such a strong reputation that even if you didn’t get quite that [offensive] production there was a lot of value to having him on your team.”
In 2016, Utley has been everything the Dodgers could have hoped for and more. The oldest leadoff man in Major League Baseball, Utley has started in that spot in the batting order for more than 75 percent of the team’s games this season.
[graphiq id=”aj8zwKrcoMl” title=”Chase Utley 2016 Hits and Batting Average by Game” width=”640″ height=”523″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/aj8zwKrcoMl” link=”http://baseball-players.pointafter.com/l/16721/Chase-Utley” link_text=”Chase Utley 2016 Hits and Batting Average by Game | PointAfter” ]
He has posted a modest .261 batting average leading off. Utley’s performance is a huge improvement over last year, where the Dodgers leadoff hitters batted a ghastly .231, which was lowest in the majors.
However, Utley’s biggest and most important contribution this season has been his experience and mentorship to the younger players.
#Dodgers’ Chase Utley spoke with @KelliTennant about facing his former team for the first time.https://t.co/jEsbXr5OT7
— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) August 9, 2016
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It’s obvious he has been a major factor in the growth of Dodger shortstop Corey Seager.
“Unbelievable. I can’t even…don’t even know where to start,” said Seager when asked about how Utley has helped him grow as a player. “He’s helped me on the field, off the field, in the clubhouse.”
Seager went on to talk about Utley’s game preparation and how he approaches each and every at-bat.
“Just watching his at-bats, watching him grind through at-bats, I’m lost for words how impressive it is,” Seager said.
Utley’s contract expires at the end of the season and it will be interesting to see if the Dodgers will make him an offer. He has recently stated he wants to continue playing in 2017, and if his return to Philadelphia on Tuesday night is any indication, he still has a lot left in his game.
In his first game back in Philadelphia, Utley homered twice and had 5 RBIs as the Dodgers won 15-5.
It seems Utley never backs down from big moments not in New York and not when he faced his former team. He also knows how to handle himself in hostile territories. Fortunately, in game one Utley received a standing ovation from Phillies fans.
Hat tip to you, Philadelphia. pic.twitter.com/Qw35Kr71Ov
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 17, 2016
Looking forward to the 2016 playoffs, Utley has a lot of experiences he can share with him younger teammates. At the very least Utley will be able to show his teammates how to properly slide into second base to break up a double play.
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I said at the time that Utley was re-signed that it was the best $7M that the FO would spend that offseason. I was roundly criticized as I was scolded that Utley was too old and fragile and would just be another Jimmy Rollins. I stated at the time that Utley’s #1 responsibility was to be an on the field mentor to Corey Seager, teach him how to play as a professional. I was rebutted that if that was his mission then he should retire and become a coach. Well mission accomplished. While Corey Seager is a can’t miss talent, he needed someone around the bag to help him with the little things that happen in a looooong 162 game season (hopefully longer). With Story and Diaz on the DL, the ROY is now Seager’s, and he will certainly garner serious MVP consideration. I do not think this happens without Utley.
Whether Chase deserves a 2017 contract with the Dodgers will be determined as to how much he wants, and the status of Howie Kendrick and Kike Hernandez/Chris Taylor as they wait for Willie Calhoun to emerge. One more year at $5M? Why not.
The intensity of competition, especially in professional sports, always carries with it the risk of injury. The human body, even when superbly conditioned, is still vulnerable to collisions, muscle strains, ligament tears, etc. I’ve heard it said numerous times: “If you don’t want to risk getting hurt, don’t play sports.” A lot of unforeseen circumstances occur when playing games in any sport. The collision involving Utley was just an unfortunate incident, not a deliberate attempt to hurt someone.
Keep Calm and Slide On