“Oh, man. When it comes to what we’re doing, he’s huge for us,” said Chris Taylor, who is rather significant himself on the Dodgers as their solid left fielder with a .313 batting average, 13 homers and 51 RBIs.
Taylor sounded like others around the Dodgers’ clubhouse, including third baseman Justin Turner. For one, he leads the Major Leagues in both batting average at .350 and on-base percentage at .448. For another, Turner ranks with pitcher Alex Wood (13-1, 2.33 ERA) as somebody who should have made the All-Star Game this year with shortstop Corey Seager, first baseman Cody Bellinger, starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw and closer Kenly Jansen.
In case you haven’t noticed by now, Utley wasn’t a 2017 All-Star, mostly because he’s a 38-year-old backup for the Dodgers at second and first. He’s hitting .241 after 220 at-bats with six homers and 27 RBIs.
Still, to hear Taylor, Turner and others tell it amongst their peers, Utley is the Dodgers’ Most Valuable Player, and they don’t think it’s close.
“We have a quality group of guys who understand that the goal is to show up every day and figure out how to win a game that day and not worry about the past or what’s ahead of us, and I think a lot of that comes from Chase Utley,” Turner said of the Southern California native. “It’s how he goes about his business, and that rubs off on everybody on the whole team. You see every night from us, the details that the guys use to play the game, and the fight and the relentlessness and the belief, and it starts at the top with [manager Dave Roberts], but it comes to the players from Chase, and that has a trickle-down effect on everybody in the clubhouse.”
So who is Utley? Not only that, but what makes him such a pied piper for a loaded Dodgers team that has the best record in the Major Leagues at 76-32 and is on pace to go within two victories of matching the all-time record for wins during a season at 116?
Well, Utley was part of an everyday nucleus in Philadelphia that included perennial All-Stars Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, and it spent years turning the Phillies into a prominent force in the National League. Not coincidentally, their spurt began after Utley became their regular second baseman in 2005, which was the year after they finished two games shy of taking the NL East.
Then, with Utley making five of his six trips overall to the All-Star Game, the Phillies were second again in 2006 before they grabbed five consecutive division titles, including two pennants and the World Series title in ’08. Utley was part of the game’s top double-play combinations during that stretch with Rollins at shortstop, and Howard was in his prime as a slugging first baseman.
In essence, those Phillies resembled these Dodgers in the ability to overcome adversity on a consistent basis.
But don’t be fooled, Utley said.
“I think it all starts with pitching,” Utley said, whose 2008 Phillies, for instance, had their version of Kershaw (15-2, 2.04 ERA), Wood and the dominating Jansen for this year’s Dodgers team in starting pitching ace Cole Hamels, who grabbed MVP honors during the NL Championship Series and the World Series, and closer Brad Lidge, who didn’t blow a save during the regular season or the postseason. “What happens is, pitching in general, and that strong starting pitching in particular, keeps you in a lot of games. It’s very similar here.
“As far as offense is concerned, guys here run the bases well, and I thought we did the same with the Phillies. And just like here, in Philly, everybody that was in that lineup had the ability to hit a home run, essentially, but there is one difference, I would say, between the two teams.
“This team is a little more selective at the plate. We’re taking our walks this year when they present themselves, and we’re hitting mistakes. Not that we didn’t do that in Philadelphia, but throughout the entire batting order here, I think we’re doing a better job regarding those things.”
All of that said, Utley didn’t elaborate much on the most striking similarity between the Phillies of then and the Dodgers of now.
“I believe that’s the big reason we brought him back,” Taylor said of Utley, who was traded from the Phillies to the Dodgers near the end of the 2015 season, and then he was signed to one-year deals before each of the past two seasons. “It’s not only what he can do for you on the field, but it’s what he does for a team inside of the clubhouse as well. He’s a lead-by-example type of guy. He really pays attention to details. He’s the first one on the field, and he’s the last one to leave every day. He’s a real student of the game, and the way he goes about his business to prepare himself, he’s probably the best I’ve ever seen.”
No arguments there from Turner, who said “guys are constantly talking to Chase about his time with the Phillies and everything else. We have constant dialogue with him around our clubhouse. He sets the bar as high as anybody possibly can, and if you’re not doing things the right way, then you’re really letting down a guy who is doing everything the right way.
“He’s been unbelievable for us.”
Just look at the streaking Dodgers.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.