When I sat down to watch tonight's screening of The Return of Utley: Getting Chasier, I was drinking a Trapiche malbec. Trapiche is a wine from my early days in grad school when finding bargain wines was a prerequisite to drinking wine. And Trapiche was surprisingly good given the price and its availability at Trader Joe's. (I was living in Chicago. PA blue laws continue to suck.) Since then, my wine budget has grown and I had left Trapiche behind. But I found it on the shelf of my local bodega. I was wearing an onion on my belt--which was the style at the time--when I bought the wine, brought it home, poured it out, and sipped it while watching a decent-sized crowd give Chase Utley a standing ovation for years 33-36 of my life...or two minutes during the relentless Kashmir riff. Whichever. Anyway, the wine, much like Utley, is not as good as I remember: mostly tannins, little fruit, one note. In fact, if there is a point to any of these senile ramblings, it's that Chase Utley is Trapiche malbec, a surprisingly excellent performer from my salad days that has now lost the tools that won my heart. Even so, it--he--they--have my heart still.
Utley's leadoff at-bat was inauspicious. Vince Velasquez painted corners and knees to get Utley looking. Indeed, Velasquez struck out the side. Indeed, the Phillies first two hitters in the bottom of the first struck out. Indeed, the game was nearly an inning old before anyone put a ball in play. That action-packed opening set the stage for what was to come: few baserunners and little offense for the first half of the game. But there were lots of cutaways to people talking about and doing things with food (mostly not eating it though). The second half of the game was another story.
Utley's second at-bat was again inauspicious but in a different way. This time he got ahead of Velasquez 3-0 with a runner on second thanks to a lead-off single by Howie Kendrick and a sacrifice bunt by Kenta Maeda, the Dodgers' starting pitcher. But Utley popped the 3-0 pitch up into shallow left field behind third base where Aaron Altherr sat down, built a campfire, and sang traditional lefty folk songs before finally catching the ball inside the body of his guitar.
Utley's third at-bat finally delivered what the fans wanted. (Let's be frank: Utley doing awesome things in Philly is better than the Phillies winning a particular game this season.) Utley once again fell behind to Velasquez and seemed very late on VV's fastball. But he jumped all over the third one--just above the belt, middle-in--and catapulted it over the wall in right-centerfield. The fans gave Utley a standing ovation and a curtain call for the dinger, appropriately. Utley bashfully accepted. (Swoon here.)
Utley then took two at-bats in a long, awful 7th inning that saw the Dodgers' lead inflate like the price of tulips in 17th century Holland. Elvis Araujo started the inning, choosing to leave his ball and glove in the dugout in favor of an aerosol can of bug spray and a lighter. At first, he simply blowtorched the Phillies potential to compete in the game, and then the can blew up in his hand (which is why you should never turn bug spray into a makeshift lighter, kids.) Utley himself capped that 8-run inning with a GRAND SLAM and another curtain call. All I have to say about this is, good job, Phillies! Way to pad that Hall of Fame case!
(In case you haven't indulged in enough Utley nostalgia yet today, here's a concise compendium of moments for you, curated by TGK. You can also read reflections by Wet Lusinksi and Justin Klugh right here on this site.)
Aside from Utley's at-bats, there was a full baseball game played and not just simmed until Utley came to the plate again. Much of that game was not fun to watch despite some good things, which should be the theme for Phillies 2016 yearbook title: e.g., "Good But Not Fun: The 2016 Phillies Experience" or "Eating Your Vegetables: A Phillies 2016 Retrospective." (Leave your suggestions in the comments.)
Velasquez pitched another thesis-antithesis game. He was unhittable except when he allowed contact, which was inevitably hard and likely a hit. Over 5.2 innings, VV struck out 10, walked 1, and induced 5 groundouts to just 2 flyouts. Those are solid fundamentals for a successful outing. On the other hand, he surrendered 5 runs on 7 hits and 3 home runs (2 2-run homers and a solo-shot to Utley). On top of that, many of the VV's balls in play were well struck. His talents are just bewildering. He throws a mid-to-high 90s fastball and can locate it well. He has two nasty breaking pitches with good velocity separation from the fastball an each other. And he can fool hitters with a fading change. That arsenal, of course, produces lots of strikeouts. But that same arsenal gets hit hard often. In fact, VV seems to pitch as if any contact will lead to a bad outcome. He goes after strikeouts on every hitter, which drives his pitch count up and limits the number of innings he can throw. The high pitch count probably also leads to outings like tonight's where he shutout the Dodgers for 4 innings and then gave up 5 runs in 5 outs before being lifted. Because his pitch count is high, Mackanin pushed him past 100 pitches to try to get him through 6 innings. If he's already into the 6th and gets into trouble with 2 outs, as he did, maybe Mackanin pulls him earlier and saves him the insult of the final 2-run homer hit by Yasmani Grandal. At any rate, it will be interesting to see whether VV figures out how to get deeper into games without throwing 150 pitches.
Cameron Rupp continues to refuse to turn back into a pumpkin. I've been waiting since June for him to make worse contact, see his BABIP drop precipitously, and stop hitting homers. Apparently, Rupp's regression is Godot because today he once again blasted a home run. This one came in the second inning and staked the Phillies to a 1-0 lead that lasted until the 5th inning. Rupp still strikes out about 1/4 of the time and barely walks. Nevertheless, he is producing offense at a rate about 20% above league average. If he keeps that up--which is unlikely given how high his BABIP is--he'll be a surprisingly valuable player for a while.
Rupp's homer started the night's bombardment over the walls. In all the teams combined for 7 homers, 4 for the Dodgers and 3 for the Phillies. Not until the 7th did a run cross the plate on a ball in play. For the Phillies Rupp was joined in the bombardment by Cesar Hernandez and Ryan Howard. But the latter two homers came when the Phillies were well behind or out of the game entirely. Cesar's homerun in the 6th made the score 5-2. Howard's mammoth blast into the bullpen elevator made it 13-4.
This was a game that outlived its usefulness. Before the end of the top of the 6th inning, I had seen everything I wanted to see tonight. VV showed flashes of brilliance while also getting maddening results. And Utley reminded us all how sweet his swing could be, even if it isn't quite as short and quick as it used to be. After that the only thing left to watch was the bullpen tack on enough runs to set a season high for runs allowed in a game. Ah well. We still have two more days with Utley playing in CBP this season.