Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 11, 2015

Utley’s Takeout Tackle Puts A Series On Edge

It was a play that occurs countless times over the course of the longest season. A runner on first with less than two outs, and a ground ball to a middle infielder creates the possibility of a double play. Even as the toss is made, in this instance, from the second baseman fielding the ball to the shortstop covering the bag the opposing runner is charging down the line, intent on sliding hard into second with the aim of disrupting the pivot and preventing a clean throw on to first. But this time the potential double play broken up by a takeout slide had all of the extra elements needed to make it a hot topic of debate among fans and pundits alike. It occurred on the brightly lit stage of a playoff game, it resulted in a season-ending injury to the fielder, and the slide, or tackle as many preferred to call it, was performed by a player with a history of aggressive play.

Saturday night the Mets were clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the 7th of Game 2 of the Division Series with the Dodgers. New York had already won Game 1 at Chavez Ravine a day earlier, when Jacob deGrom outpitched Clayton Kershaw. Now the Mets were hoping to take an improbable two games to none lead back across the country to Citi Field. Zack Greinke has surrendered a pair of solo home runs by Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto in the top of the 2nd, and Noah Syndergaard had yielded a run-scoring double to Andre Ethier in the bottom of the 4th. But other than that both pitchers had been imposing as the taut contest reached the later innings.

Syndergaard fanned Dodger catcher Yasmani Grandal to open the home 7th for his ninth strikeout of the game. He then issued a full count walk to center fielder Enrique Hernandez, which brought Los Angeles to Greinke’s spot in the batting order. Dodger manager Don Mattingly sent Chase Utley up to pinch hit for his starting pitcher.

Utley is a six-time All-Star who is more than familiar to Mets fans, having spent his entire career until this August with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a mainstay of the Phillies teams that dominated the NL East from 2007 through 2011. As such he was a familiar antagonist for the Mets and their fans. The faithful in Philadelphia have long cheered Utley for his passion. But in Queens and other NL East cities that passion has often been seen as aggression over the line.

At age 36 he’s nearing the end of his career, and the now hapless Phillies traded Utley to Los Angeles in mid-August in what amounted to a salary dump. He’s been a bit player for the Dodgers, batting barely over .200 in 34 games down the stretch. As Utley stood in against Syndergaard, Hernandez stole second. Representing the run that would tie the game, he then went to third when Utley sent Syndergaard’s 2-1 offering safely into right field for a single.

Utley’s hit brought Mets’ manager Terry Collins out of the dugout, signaling to the bullpen for Bartolo Colon. The batter for the Dodgers was Howie Kendrick, who on a 1-2 count sent a four-seam fastball sharply back up the middle. What happened next takes significantly longer to describe than it did to unfold on the field.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy ranged far to his right, snaring the ball behind second base on the edge of the outfield grass. He sent an off-balance underhanded flip in the general direction of second base, as shortstop Ruben Tejada ranged over to cover the bag. Murphy’s toss was high and behind Tejada, forcing him to turn his back to first base and Utley, who was coming down the base path. The shortstop reached up with his glove hand to snare the ball, planting his right foot in the area of second base as he did so. With his momentum taking him across the base but his glove with the ball behind him, Tejada then tried to complete a 360 degree turn so he could throw to first. Before he could do so Utley commenced a late semi-slide wide of the bag, reaching toward it with his left hand as he barreled into Tejada’s legs, sending the shortstop head over heels even as his left knee caught Utley’s batting helmet, sending it flying.

The call on the field by second base umpire Chris Guccione was that Utley was out. Without the double play Hernandez trotted home to knot the score at 2-2. As Tejada remained down on the ground Mattingly came on the field to ask the umpires if the out call was reviewable, and was told it was not a so-called neighborhood play because Tejada’s back was to the bag. That meant L.A. was free to challenge the call and the umpires ultimately determined that the shortstop had missed the base, making Utley safe at second. Meanwhile the Mets starting shortstop had been carted off the field with a fractured fibula. With two men on and still only one out after the replay review, the Dodgers went on to plate three more runs in the inning, evening the best-of-five series with a 5-2 win.

Reaction from players, pundits and fans predictably had a lot to do with one’s rooting interest. Utley insisted he had no intent to injure his opponent, and didn’t realize that Tejada’s back was turned. He called it an awkward play, adding “any time you have an opportunity to break up a double play, you should do your best to do that.” Kendrick offered up “that’s baseball,” and Cal Ripken, doing commentary for TBS, judged it “a hard, clean play.”

The Mets took a darker view. Outfielder Michael Cuddyer opined “That’s not a slide. That’s a tackle.” Captain David Wright said “in my opinion he (Utley) wasn’t close to the bag,” and a seething Terry Collins suggested that while his players were rightfully angry they would control that anger when the series moves to New York on Monday. Mets backers were also quick to point out that this wasn’t the first time Utley has been involved in a questionable play. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time he took out Tejada. In 2010 there was a remarkably similar play involving the same two players during a late season game in Philadelphia.

For its part MLB, through Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, indicated that the event is still being reviewed. Though it seems likely that banning Utley from the remainder of the postseason, as some Mets fans have suggested, is not about to happen.

On balance, Ripken had it half right. It was a hard play alright, but in the view of On Sports and Life one that crossed the line from clean to dirty. But it’s also reasonable to believe that while Utley has always pushed the edge and sometimes crossed the line, he does so without malice aforethought. Sadly in this case, that lack of intent mattered little.

The larger question is what happens next. The Great Game has a long history of teammates standing up for one another. If Utley comes to the plate again in this series, he would be well advised to stay loose. But since he’s a part-time player that might not happen. In what is now a best-of-three series every at bat takes on added import. Thus the Mets, and particularly Game 3 starter Matt Harvey, must decide what carries more weight; extracting a measure of revenge, or focusing on winning. The upstarts from New York and the big spenders from Hollywood have given baseball fans two compelling games. Hopefully this series will not now descend into chaos.

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Responses

  1. Your analysis of this situation is very fair and even-handed. Although I don’t believe Utley intended to harm Tejada, and although this sort of play happens from time to time in baseball, I have to say that I agreed with the two-game penalty handed down later today by Joe Torre. In a way, this might take some pressure off of Terry Collins to feel the need to make sure Harvey retaliates. I’m sure, upon reflection, he’d rather not have to do that, because he won’t want to risk getting Harvey tossed from the game after just an inning or two. That certainly could only work to the benefit of the Dodgers.
    Still, the next time Utley faces the Mets, he’d better not dig in.
    Nice work, as always,
    Bill


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