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It's Time, Chase

The Phillies' late-summer renaissance probably has triggered more good vibes around the team than at least since Jim Thome signed as a free agent in December 2002. I don't think I buy the explanations of chemistry, or scrapitude, or veteranaciousness, or whatever other clichés have been offered to explain the surge; I think the team is more likable because they're winning rather than winning because they're more likable, and while I don't dismiss the chemistry or stylistic argument altogether, for the most part I'm with Billy Beane: winning makes for chemistry more than vice-versa.

But one point that hasn't much been made is that even as the departure of Bobby Abreu and others have left the Phillies as "Chase Utley's team," the man himself has been more follower than leader in August. Through 23 games, Utley is hitting .287 for the month--but he's got one homer, 10 RBI and a .362 slugging percentage, while striking out 26 times in 94 at-bats. That kind of offensive profile is fine for Abe Nunez---in fact, it's pretty much what got him that two-year deal last winter--but doesn't cut it for Utley, a line-drive machine who cranked 21 extra-base hits during his scorching hot July.

For a couple years now I've thought Utley could evolve into a player like Derek Jeter, the unofficial leader of the Yankees. (I'm also pretty sure I had this notion before John Kruk did, if only because if I'd heard it from Kruk I would have dismissed it out of hand.) They share a complete offensive game, a knack for the spectacular defensive play, and maximum effort at all times. And while Jeter's legend has been overblown by the frantic attentions of Tim McCarver and others, it's tough to deny that he generally rises to the occasion. Over his career, Jeter's pre-all star splits are .310/.383/.457/.840; after the Midsummer Classic, his numbers improve to .322/.393/.467/.860. September is his best month as a regular, with a career line of .322/.402/.476/.878. But in 1997, his second full season, Jeter wasn't a huge factor during the final month: he batted .279 with a .768 OPS. It wasn't until a bit deeper in his career that he began to dominate in the final month, going .364/1.029 in 1999 and .413/1.048 the next season.

Utley is now in his fourth full season, if you define that concept by playing through September (remember, in 2003 he and Polanco played down the stretch, with David Bell injured). He's been here before, but never with the spotlight on him the way it is now. Utley's numbers last September were superficially okay---.268 average, .843 OPS---but a late hot stretch that extended into the Phils' final series in October pulled them up; for most of the month, Utley looked worn out. His career line for September is .259/.352/.450/.802---respectable, but not sufficient by a standard of baseball greatness. Utley's post-all star career numbers are also a bit lower than his first-half performance (.284/.359/.504/.863, compared to .299/.365/.512/.877 before the break).

Is this a lot to put on a 27 year-old who just made his first all-star team in 2006? Maybe. But that's how the season has gone. Already, Chase Utley might be the most popular ballplayer in Philadelphia since Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra powered the 1993 Phils to a pennant. But at different times, Curt Schilling, Scott Rolen, and Jim Thome himself could have claimed the same thing. Whether Utley's legacy is as a nice player who performed well for awhile, or a star who lifted his teammates beyond what anyone thought they could accomplish is the question he'll start to answer over the next few weeks. Ryan Howard and a resurgent rotation got the Phils back into this race; it now falls to their leader and best all-around player to bring it to a happy conclusion.