MIAMI -- Ryne Sandberg invited players into his office one at a time Thursday afternoon, a dire catharsis for the Phillies, losers of six straight.
"Be ready to be the guy to make a difference," the manager told some of his veterans, and the Phillies manager once again looked to Chase Utley for leadership.
Utley, mired in one of the deepest slumps of his career, hit a potential double-play ball at Marlins second baseman Donovan Solano in the ninth inning. Solano misplayed it, settled for one out, and the go-ahead run in a 5-4 Phillies win scored.
That is not what Sandberg imagined. At least Utley's bat showed some life; his sixth-inning single ignited a three-run rally that snapped a 17-inning Phillies scoreless drought. Utley, probably the team's lone all-star, generated almost no concern in the first two months. But he is the team's worst everyday hitter since May 27, a span of 37 games.
He has just five extra-base hits in his last 159 plate appearances. No player in baseball has batted more times than Utley in that period and posted a lower OPS than his .570. He is, in effect, one of the game's worst hitters during that period.
It is a remarkable twist to a season that started with incredible production. Utley posted a .950 OPS in the season's first 48 games (198 plate appearances). He blasted 21 doubles, which led the National League, and paced the offense. He batted over .400 until April 21.
Questions about Utley's health will linger for the duration of his career. Utley played in 81 of the Phillies' first 85 games, his highest workload since 2009, when he appeared in 83 of 85. He was 30 years old then, and yet to encounter the debilitating knee pain that later threatened everything.
He endured 131 games last season, but a strained rib cage muscle at the end of May that shelved Utley for 28 games kept him fresh for the second half. Sandberg refused to cite fatigue as a reason for Utley's recent anemic hitting.
The manager has rested Utley twice since May 27. When he sat the second baseman on June 17, Sandberg noted that Utley's "bat looks sluggish, his swing is a little long."
Sandberg, a week later, said Utley had "shown some good things in batting practice and I think it's just a temporary thing."
But the problems have persisted. Sandberg blamed that on a lack of timing. He observed Utley chasing bad balls and taking hittable ones.
"That indicates it's a timing thing, recognizing the pitch and having the timing to connect with it," Sandberg said. "That's what I believe. I believe the power is still there. We see it in batting practice."
Utley batted twice Thursday with a runner on first. He whiffed at a fastball that bisected the plate in the first inning. He stabbed at an outside fastball in the third and flied out to left.
He connected in the sixth inning. Ryan Howard and Marlon Byrd swatted consecutive singles to load the bases. A groundout and strikeout thrust third-string catcher Cameron Rupp into a crucial moment. He crushed Marlins reliever Chris Hatcher's ninth pitch to the wall for a two-run double.
Rupp pounded his fists together at second base. The Phillies dugout celebrated success, later robbed, then restored with a seesaw ending. Sandberg could point to various difference-makers, and Utley was one.
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