It’s interesting to note that right in middle of the word “clutch” are the first two letters of the surname of Philadelphia Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley, whose two solo home runs provided the only scoring off New York Yankees’ ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia over the first seven innings in the opening game of the 2009 World Series at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night.
Utley is exactly the type of gritty, rise-to-the-occasion player which has filled the Phillies’ roster the past two years, and those traits might be what ultimately carry the Phillies to their second straight world championship over a team which is widely considered better than the team which owns 2008 World Series rings.
Yes, that’s right, it’s the Yankees who have to take that title from Philadelphia, not the other way around, as it might have often seemed leading up to this season’s World Series.
Behind Utley, the Phillies served early notice that they won’t be intimidated in the least by any sort of Yankee postseason mystique.
For all the talk of how dominant Sabathia had been this postseason (and, he was) and how powerful the Yankees’ lineup is (and, it is), it seems that a certain thing was forgotten by many fans and media members about the team in the opposing dugout –- that Philadelphia, not New York, is the defending world champion, and that the fightin’ Phils, with a payroll of nearly S100 million less than that of their 2009 World Series counterparts, possess both the ability and all of the intangibles needed to overcome the mighty, favored Yankees.
The other main story in Philadelphia’s 6-1 Game 1 victory besides Utley’s heroics was that of the Phillies’ own ace starter, Cliff Lee, who finished a complete game as the only pitcher in baseball history to strike out 10 batters while allowing no walks and no earned runs in a World Series game.
Pitching on the grand stage as a Game 1 World Series starter in Yankee Stadium, it was Lee who showed up the Yankees and shut them down the way many thought Sabathia would stop the Phillies’ powerful lineup.
Lee certainly didn’t shy away from such an opportunity. “I’ve never been nervous in the big leagues,” he said, a few moments after winning the first ever World Series game played at the new Yankee Stadium, a victory which comes six months and twelve days after Lee won the first regular season game ever played in the same building, on April 16th, as a member of the Cleveland Indians.
After very nonchalantly sticking out his glove to catch a pop-up on the mound by Johhny Damon in the 6th inning as if he was shagging a fly ball during batting practice, and later in the 8th inning, fielding a bouncing ball behind his back, to retire Robinson Cano, Fox television announcer Joe Buck remarked, “His body language is like he’s pitching in spring training… Cliff Lee has made it look easy.” Tim McCarver jokingly added, “Yeah, he’s just getting his work in.”
That attitude typifies the Phillies and why they lead the World Series 1-0 as last year’s champions even though the Yankees are favored and thought of by most as being a stronger team from top to bottom.
As Utley said, it doesn’t matter in the Phillies’ clubhouse what others think of them or what they think of a team like the Yankees in comparison. “We have confidence, we know we have a good team,” Utley said.
Without Utley, who set a major league baseball record in Game 1 by reaching base in his 26th postseason game (matching his uniform number), the game’s final two innings (during which the Phillies tacked on four runs after Sabathia left the game), might have played out much differently, and Lee’s spectacular efforts might have gone to waste.
However, it didn’t matter to the clutch left-hand-hitting Utley that Sabathia hadn’t allowed a home run to a left-handed batter all season. Utley hit the ninth pitch of his third inning at-bat, sending a two-strike, 95 mph fastball into the right field seats for a 1-0 Phillies’ lead. Sabathia then retired the next eight hitters until Utley’s next at-bat. So, what did the ultimate gamer Utley, do then? He smacked another 95 mph fastball, this time, on an 0-2 pitch, even further than his earlier home run, into the right-center field stands, to put the Phillies up 2-0, in the sixth inning.
Before Utley, the only other left-handed hitter to homer twice off a lefty pitcher in a World Series game was legendary Yankee Babe Ruth, in 1928, off of the Cardinals’ Bill Sherdel.
It’s only one game, and this World Series is far from over. But, Utley’s play on Wednesday night exemplified the scrappy, determined nature of the Phillies, and why the Yankees may be on the verge of yet again, vastly outspending the rest of major-league baseball with free agent mercenaries like Sabathia, only to possibly fall short of a world championship yet again.
Recent history doesn’t bode well for New York in that regard. The last six World Series winners have all won Game 1, as Philadelphia did on Wednesday night. The team that started that trend? The underdog Florida Marlins, who sharing many of the same characteristics of Utley and his current Phillie teammates, fought their way to a 4-2 victory over the heavily favored Yankees, in 2003.