Utley goes deep, helps Phillies beat Rays

Thursday, October 23, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Chase Utley walked up to the plate looking to bunt and ended up driving one out.

Utley's two-run homer in the first inning got Philadelphia started in its first appearance in the World Series since 1993, and Cole Hamels pitched the Phillies to a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 on Wednesday night.

Utley finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs, two stolen bases and an intentional walk. Good thing for the NL champions their three-time All-Star second baseman came here swinging because Ryan Howard and the rest of the big hitters had their share of problems.

The Phillies were 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position, although Carlos Ruiz had an RBI groundout in the fourth.

Utley, who hit a career-best 33 homers in the regular season, became the 34th player to go deep in his first Series at-bat. Dustin Pedroia and Bobby Kielty did it last year for Boston against Colorado.

With the Rays employing an extreme shift against the left-handed hitting Utley, he simply tried to reach base against hard-throwing lefty Scott Kazmir. Utley bunted the first pitch, fouling it down the third-base line. He checked on a close 1-2 pitch, before ripping Kazmir's next offering into the right-field seats to put the Phillies ahead 2-0.

"Fastball, middle of the plate," Utley said. "I was just trying to put the ball into play."

How'd Utley celebrate his second postseason homer? He put his head down and jogged quickly around the bases, just like he does every time he goes deep. No fist-pumping, hand-gesturing or anything else from this old-school baseball rat.

"Every game we go out to win," Utley said.

Utley hit .277 with 13 homers against lefties in the regular season. But Kazmir allowed only one homer to a left-handed hitter in 131 at-bats. Boston slugger David Ortiz connected off him Sept. 15.

Philadelphia's offense, inconsistent throughout the season, couldn't do much else the rest of the game.

Howard was 0-for-4, striking out three times, including twice with a runner on third and one out. Jimmy Rollins was 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and flied into a double play with the bases loaded in the second. Pat Burrell went 0-for-3 and left a runner at third.

Utley beat the shift with a single to left-center off lefty reliever J.P. Howell in the seventh. He stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch, but was stranded when Howard struck out and Shane Victorino fanned after Burrell walked.

Overall, Utley hit .292 and had 104 RBIs this season, doing most of his damage before the All-Star break. A nagging hip injury may be the reason Utley's production dropped in the second half -- he had 12 homers in the last 103 games -- but he never made excuses or asked out of the lineup.

His sweet swing looks just fine now.

Utley got hot in the NLCS against Los Angeles. He hit .353 (6-for-17) with a homer and three RBIs against his hometown Dodgers in the five-game series. He's now reached safely in 12 straight postseason games.

Before that series, Utley had been 4-for-26 (.154) with nine strikeouts, one extra-base hit and two RBIs in his postseason career. He was just 2-for-15 with four strikeouts in the division series against Milwaukee.

Seeking their second World Series title in 126 years -- the first was in 1980 -- and Philadelphia's first championship since the 76ers won the NBA title 25 years ago, the Phillies didn't play like a team with the weight of a championship-starved city on its shoulders.

With manager Charlie Manuel cracking jokes and providing rubber ducks in every player's locker as a prop to remind them to stay loose, the Phillies looked like the October regulars. They walked around before the game with an aura that they belonged on this stage.

This was no hostile environment on the road, either.

Plenty of red-clad fans came from nearby Clearwater, where the team has held its spring training since 1947, and from Philadelphia to support the Fightin' Phils. They gathered behind the Phillies dugout three hours before game time and whooped it up Philly-style.

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