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Utley battling past late-season struggles

Utley battling past late-season struggles

PHILADELPHIA -- There is no way to deny that Chase Utley has established himself as one of the game's elite second basemen and a primary reason that the Phillies have evolved into an annual world championship contender.

But while winning three consecutive National League East titles and the 2008 World Series, the Phillies have overcome the late-season struggles that have become maddening for Utley.

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Utley, a career .295 hitter, has combined to bat .262 with eight homers and a .776 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) during the past three Septembers. In comparison, during each of the first five months of these past three division-winning seasons, the four-time All-Star second baseman has hit .310.

"I think a lot of it is mental," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "It's the 162-game schedule, the grind that you have. I think players get physically and mentally worn down. I think mental is definitely plays a big part, especially like when you prepare and you put forth everything you've got into it like Utley does."

Unfortunately for Utley, the regular-season grind has also possibly proven to be a factor when the playoffs have arrived.

Entering Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Thursday afternoon, Utley had hit .215 with three homers and a .770 OPS in 18 career postseason games. During the 5-1 win against the Rockies in Game 1 on Wednesday afternoon, the 30-year-old second baseman's lone hit in four at-bats was a single that sparked a three-run sixth inning.

"He looks good," Manuel said. "Actually I went and watched him take BP, and I think the rest that he got the last three or four days definitely helped him."

Attempting to provide Utley a chance to get fresh for the postseason, Manuel removed him from Saturday's game against the Marlins after just four innings and then allowed him to rest throughout Sunday afternoon's regular-season finale.

Recognized as a student of the game, Utley took advantage of this time by analyzing some of his at-bats and the tendencies of some of the Rockies pitchers.

"You know, the days off the last few days of the season were nice," Utley said. "I just could relax a little bit and watch some baseball instead of participate. As far as doing my homework, it stays the same every single day, just trying to put a game plan together on defense. Offensively, just trying to find the best way to win."

There has certainly never been any reason to doubt Utley's determination to compete and be on the field on a regular basis. While still basking in the euphoria that followed last year's World Series title, it was confirmed that Utley had spent the final months of the 2008 season battling discomfort in his right hip.

Early projections were that he may miss the first two months of the 2009 season. But the veteran second baseman was in the Opening Day lineup and managed to play 156 games this year. More impressively, he hit .323 with 10 homers and a 1.119 OPS in the first 27 games this season.

In the 125 games that Utley played through the end of August, he hit .304 with 29 homers and a .976 OPS. But in his final 31 games of the year, he hit .193 with two homers and a .695 OPS.

"Actually I feel pretty good," Utley said. "This year was a little different for me. I obviously had the surgery last year, coming back in four months, which was the quickest time that they gave me to come back, so overall I'm pretty proud of my body and myself and the way that I've handled this year."

When asked how he might be able to prevent Utley from having to endure some of the late-season struggles that have been haunted him the past few years, Manuel smiled and light-heartedly said he'd like the Phillies to find a backup that would allow him to feel comfortable about resting his All-Star second baseman for at least 15 games each season.

"I try to put the best team possible on the field to win and sometimes you look up and [Utley] is playing," Manuel said. "But at the same time, he has to play if we're going to win."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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