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August 16, 2016

Utley homers twice in unforgettable return to South Philly

Whether he wants to admit it or not, Chase Utley has a knack for excelling when all eyes are on him.

When the moment is magnified, Chase Utley delivers.

Just go back and look at his career in the postseason. The Game 1 home runs twice in the 2008 postseason or tying Reggie Jackson’s record with five home runs in the 2009 World Series.

Or how about over Memorial Day weekend in New York this year, when, fresh off his role as the villain against the Mets last postseason, Utley hit a bases-clearing, game-tying double off Jeurys Familia on the first night and then homered twice (including a grand slam) the next night at Citi Field, rendering the Flushing fans silent.

Or even last week, in the first game he’d ever played against the Phillies in 14 seasons, Utley hit a home run, one of what was just eight on the season.

“I’m not quite sure if that’s the case,” Utley said when the following was presented to him on Tuesday afternoon, before he’d play his first game in Philadelphia in a visiting uniform. “But having success in interesting times is nice to do. It’s not always going to happen, but you try to have the same focus on a daily basis regardless of what’s going on around you. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not.”

Well, Chase, it certainly was the case again at Citizens Bank Park a few hours later.

On a night that was destined to be a Chase Utley Lovefest – there was no more popular player during the most successful era in Phillies baseball than Utley, and probably only Hall of Fame player and beloved broadcast Richie Ashburn would rival him in the history of the franchise – Utley saw the heightened atmosphere in South Philly and brought his very best to the ballpark he called home for a dozen years.

Four innings after receiving a thunderous, nearly-90 second ovation to begin the game, Utley homered. And received another rousing ovation. And came out for a curtain call, too.

And then in the seventh, another home run, ovation, and curtain call. And, like on that Saturday night in New York, the second blast was a grand slam.

Utley and the Dodgers rolled to a 15-5 victory against Vince Velasquez and the Phillies on an unforgettable Tuesday night.

“He’s a winning player,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said before the game of Utley’s previous dramatics, and how it could portend for an interesting night for his own team. “And he wants to be in those situations.”

After the game, Utley finally came clean, knowing he couldn't hide from the reputation he helped back up on Tuesday night.

"There's no doubt there's a little extra adrenaline," said Utley, who has hit six of his 10 home runs this year against the Phillies (his former team) and the Mets (his long-time foe). "With the playoff baseball (here), we had a lot of practice at that over the years. Adrenaline can be your friend at times. There definitely was a lot of adrenaline flowing tonight. After that first at-bat, I was able to calm down a little bit."

In his 1,686th major league game, and first wearing a uniform other than the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, Utley put on a show for the 28,118 fans that came through the turnstiles. He went 2-for-4 with two home runs, a walk, and five RBI.

And if it wasn’t obvious that most (all?) of the aforementioned 28,118 fans came to watch Utley, you weren’t paying attention.

"You knew it was going to be the big hype around him coming back for the first time in a different uniform," said Ryan Howard, who hit behind Utley in the Phillies lineup for a decade. "As players we try to just continue to play the game as the game is supposed to be played. But I think it was something bigger tonight. I definitely think it was something bigger than the game tonight."

About a half hour before first pitch, on Beatles Night at Citizens Bank Park, former Philadelphia broadcaster and Beatles author Larry Kane was being introduced on the field and the crowd near the third base line erupted in applause. But it wasn’t for the likable Kane, a familiar face on local television throughout the 80s and 90s. It was for the gray figure that darted out of the Dodgers dugout to work through a pregame stretch routine just behind the infield in shallow left.

It was Utley, of course.

They erupted again when his picture hit Phanavision seconds before Dan Baker announced his name as he read through the starting lineups. When Baker read Utley’s name for the second time, as he walked to the plate in the top of the first inning as the Dodgers leadoff hitter, the applause grew louder and was as persistent as Utley in a critical at-bat against a hard-throwing reliever with a game on the line.

Utley stepped out and acknowledged his worshippers. He took off his helmet, doffed it into several directions including the Phillies dugout and first base, where Howard, his long-time teammate and locker neighbor stood, clapping in appreciation with the rest of Philadelphia.

Utley then motioned to Cameron Rupp to get behind the plate. He tried to dig in, but it only got louder as the cheers continued into minute two.

He stepped out of the batter’s box, used his right fist to punch his heart. The fans had hit a cord that the normally emotionless Utley would be able to fend off. He then raised the fist to the air.

"It was awesome, man," Howard said. "I think for a guy like Chase, I think it was incredible. It just goes to show the body of work that he’s done here, the respect that the fans have for what he’s been able to accomplish here. 

"I thought it was very classy by the fans. ... It was awesome. It was awesome to see that kind of respect given back to him. It’s great to be a part of."

Utley would later call it one of the "most nervous at-bats" he's had "at any level."

"Completely overwhelming," Utley said. "The standing ovation in my first at-bat is something that I’ll never forget, to be honest with you. It was truly special. It shows how passionate and how great the Philadelphia fan base really is."

Utley returned to the box, after the heart pound and fist pump, nodded at Velasquez to deliver a pitch, and the game was underway. But the theater was just getting started.

In the fifth inning, trailing 1-0 after Rupp's 14th home run of the season, the Dodgers (who entered the night a half-game back of San Francisco in the National League West standings) began to mount their comeback. Howie Kendrick got it started with a two-run home run.

The Dodgers would hit a hat-trick of home runs against Velasquez, who started out strong, striking out five of the first seven batters he faced, but couldn’t overcome the consistency and durability concerns that have been lurking underneath his talented arm throughout 2016.

The second home run Velasquez served up was to Utley. Two batters after Kendrick found the shrubbery beyond the center field fence, Utley sent a solo shot to the fence in right-center, over the out-of-town scoreboard.

The ballpark erupted, again. Utley motored around the bases, as he does, and after returning to the dugout he accomplished the rarest of feats. He was summoned for a curtain call from the opposing team’s fans for hitting a home run in their ballpark.

Velasquez was not offended that the fans cheered for the guy in the wrong uniform who hit the home run.

"I understand," the 24-year-old Velasquez said. "He's a legend here." 

Two innings later, Elvis Araujo (two bases-loaded walks, one bases-loaded hit by pitch) had already turned the game into a laugher. So when Utley returned to the batter’s box for the second time in the inning, and eyed up a pitch from Michael Mariot and sent it skyward and then into the right field seats, there was a funny sound emanating from the crowd.


They were impressed.

Utley had connected on a grand slam. After the initial shock, they put their hands back together and cheered until their hero emerged from the visiting dugout once again.

"We’ve had some great times here with great teams and played hard," Utley said of his connection with the fans. "Philly fans recognize the guys that play the game the right way. Like I said, they’ll always have a special place in my heart for sure."

Aside from a small hat tip of his red cap to a dozen or so fans 363 nights earlier, on the day he was traded to the Dodgers but the deal didn’t become official until 90 minutes after the game had ended last August, neither Utley or Phillies fans had the chance for a proper goodbye.

The opportunity arrived Tuesday, and neither party was let down. How else can you explain a night when a visiting player receives two curtain calls after assaulting the home team?

"You can't," said Howard, who also homered on Tuesday night. "I think it just goes to show you can change the uniform, but he’s always going to be a Phillie at heart. He’s always going to be a Phillie to everybody here."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21