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May 27, 2016

Utley gives Mets fans a near-nightmarish finish in return to Citi Field

NEW YORK – For close to three hours, each time he stepped to the plate and until he left the batter’s box during those trips to the plate, Chase Utley was booed unmercifully Friday night at Citi Field.

For about 10 minutes, Utley silenced all of Flushing.

Utley, the former Phillies icon and current Dodger, played in his first game in New York since last October’s controversial slide in the National League Division series against the New York Mets. Utley was productive, but the game lacked any real drama after the defending National League Champions battered Dodgers 19-year-old rookie lefthander Julio Urias in the first inning.

But then the Dodgers put runners on base in the top of the ninth. And then Utley walked up to the plate, with the bases loaded, two outs, and his team trailing by three runs.

“I’m just trying to get a pitch in the strike zone,” Utley said of the at-bat. “He’s one of the toughest closers out there.”

On the first pitch he saw from Jeurys Familia, a 98-MPH sinker about knee high and just under his hands, Utley whipped his hands through the zone with his patented, short and quick swing and sent the ball into the right-center gap. The bases emptied. The Dodgers tied the game. 

Utley pumped his fist at third base and the ballpark went quiet.

But then, it came back alive: Curtis Granderson, the first batter of the bottom half of the inning, hit the second pitch he saw into the “Utley corner” of the Mets’ eight-year-old ballpark and a sold-out crowd of 43,462 survived what was nearly a nightmarish ending to beat their arch enemy and the Dodgers, 6-5.

“I like the fact that we battled down four runs against one of the better closers, we came back and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Utley said afterward.

And the boos and those “UT-LEY SUCKS, UT-LEY SUCKS” chants, was that what he expected?

“About what happened,” said Utley, who had little to no interest in talking about it afterward.

Utley’s bat did plenty of chirping throughout the night. It’s apparently missed playing in emotionally-charged environments for the majority of the last four years.

Utley went 1-for-2 with a sacrifice fly, a double and two walks. He drove in four of the Dodgers’ five runs on Friday.

“You always want to contribute,” Utley said, “no matter who you’re playing against or where you’re playing.”

Now in his 14th major league season -- and first that didn’t begin in a Phillies uniform -- Utley has always managed to do a decent job of forgetting about yesterday and focusing on the here and now.

Mets fans, though, couldn’t seem to forget the events from seven months ago.

In the Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 10, Utley came to the plate in the seventh inning – with one on and one out – with his Dodger team trailing by a run and just eight outs away from packing their things and heading to Citi Field facing an 0-2 deficit in the series.

Utley singled. He advanced to second on a fielder’s choice. The Dodgers rallied for four runs in the inning and took over the game.

That’s oversimplifying the series of events, of course. Perhaps a more succinct way to recall the signature moment of the game-changing half inning: all hell broke loose.

Utley, known for his all-out, hair-on-fire brand of baseball, barreled into Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada on the play. Tejada’s back was to Utley when the collision took place, as the result of a pirouette he did after taking the toss from second baseman Daniel Murphy behind the bag.

Tejada wasn’t carted off the field for five more minutes. His right leg was broken. The Dodgers won the game. The Mets (eventually) won the series.

Utley didn’t play in either of the series’s games in New York the following week. But he returned on Friday.

At 7:08 p.m., just after the cheers for the marching band that performed the national anthem subsided, Utley hopped out of the visiting dugout. Before public address announcer Alex Anthony could get to the mic, a chorus of boos descended upon Utley.

They continued as he dug in against deGrom, drowning out Anthony’s voice. They carried over until Utley left the batter’s box and blitzed up the first base line after working a seven-pitch walk to begin the game.

They finally turned to cheers when Utley was caught stealing on a strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play. Utley’s slide into second base was perfectly tame.

“I know he feels bad about it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said before the game of the play that remained on the minds of Mets fans, if not anyone else, on Friday night. “He’s turned the page. And he wants to help us win a baseball game tonight.”

The Mets appeared to be in the same frame of mind. There were no brush-back pitches.

Tejada is no longer on the Mets roster; he was released in spring training. David Wright, the longest tenured Mets player, said earlier this month that winning the playoff series was the payback his team wanted (and got) in October.

The rules may have changed regarding how base runners can slide into second base, just as they did a few years ago with home plate. But Utley is unchanged.

And the Dodgers are thankful for that.

“That’s the way he plays,” said Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton, who was also Utley’s teammate for parts of five seasons with the Phillies after joining the team during the 2008 season. “And if you want to call it old school or hard-nosed – he plays every out like that. … That’s the way baseball was played. It gets kind of lost.”

“He loves the game. You see him every single play, every pitch. It’s with intensity and with focus. You really don’t see that nowadays."

The way the game “was” played.

In the new normal, you’re looked at funny if you’re not a fan of a bat flip. You’re the odd man out if you’re not chuckling at the young player with the “Make Baseball Fun Again” hat or t-shirt.

When exactly was baseball no longer fun? Isn’t watching a guy go 100-MPH (well, not exactly 100 MPH, don’t throw your advanced stats at me) between the base paths (even from home to first) fun?

“That’s fun,” said fellow Dodgers pitcher Scott Kazmir. “I think the young guys … they don’t know too much about fun with what they’re talking about I don’t think. Or maybe they just don’t know the game, what it was before. But, yeah, that’s the type of guy that I like. That’s the reason why you play the game, to play with guys like that.”

Kazmir has been on the other side of the dugout from Utley. He served up a two-run home run to Utley in Game 1 of the 2008 World Series.

Kazmir understands it’s not exactly “fun” when Utley is on the other side, making you throw more pitches as a pitcher or making you stay on your toes as an infielder. But when he’s on your side, and he’s maxing out his effort, still, seven months away from his 38th birthday, coupling his baseball acumen with his tenacity, it’s a treat.

“He’s a guy that you almost wish every young guy could see go about his business on a daily basis, just the ultimate pro,” Kazmir said. “He loves the game. You see him every single play, every pitch. It’s with intensity and with focus. You really don’t see that nowadays. It’s a lot of show-boating, a lot of guys doing all types of stuff. It’s refreshing to see a guy like that do what he does, and to be able to do it for as long as he’s done now.”

Even Roberts, Utley’s current manager and a guy who played against him during his playing career, admitted in a private moment before his team took batting practice on Friday that his starting second baseman and leadoff hitter is his “favorite player to watch play.”

“I just admire him immensely,” Roberts said earlier in the day on Friday.

“When you think of Philly – they really appreciate hard work, I think. They appreciate that hard work and grit.”

The first-year Dodgers manager knew a little more about Utley than most people who had never shared a dugout or clubhouse with him. Roberts left UCLA four years before Utley arrived.

But after getting to know him personally over the last few months, Roberts has an even greater appreciation for Utley.

“My respect and admiration has grown exponentially,” Roberts said. “When you see him on the day-to-day, and how he relates to his teammates. His whole goal is to win baseball games.”

It’s a mentality that may be respected, if not appreciated, by a larger population of New York baseball fans who can look beyond one unfortunate accident, one that happened to take place on the game’s biggest stage (the postseason) against a team from the world’s most visible city.

A little more than 100 miles south of Flushing is a city that certainly appreciated Utley’s brand of play, a style that made him more popular than any other player from arguably the greatest era of Phillies baseball.

“When you think of Philly – they really appreciate hard work, I think,” Blanton said. “They appreciate that hard work and grit.”

They appreciate max effort.

“It’s a style of play that,” Blanton continued, “if you watch baseball, and you like old school-type baseball, if you want to call it that. I don’t like saying that, because I feel like that’s just playing the game the right way, and playing hard.”

Utley did his part on Friday night. But, just like October, the Mets won when it was all said and done.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21