The coaches of the Dodgers maintain a highlight reel of the eldest player on their roster. They show it to his teammates as an example to follow. They hope to teach the others on the club, professionals who play the game at the highest level, to mimic the effort, intensity and attention to detail of Chase Utley.
Utley does not like the attention. But his performance still offers lessons for instruction, like in the ninth inning of a 2-0 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday, when Utley scored from first base after a dropped third strike and a throwing error. He barreled through the 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame of Chicago reliever Hector Rondon to score the insurance run.
“He would run through a brick wall,” shortstop Corey Seager said. “And he basically did.”
From the 30,000-foot view, the run meant little. The Dodgers (5-4) already led, thanks to a leadoff homer by Andrew Toles. Brandon McCarthy silenced the Cubs across six innings of four-hit baseball. Ross Stripling furthered his case for high-leverage usage with a quartet of strikeouts. And the Dodgers managed to escape the evening despite batting 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine runners.
Yet, up close, to the keen observers who populate the Dodgers’ coaching staff and front office, the play by Utley caused eyes to glow after the game. Third base coach Chris Woodward suggested “less than five” players in the majors would have the wherewithal to score on that play. How many of that group are 38? “Probably zero, other than him,” Seager said.
“That shows what he’s about,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “What we’re about.”
That is why the Dodgers re-signed Utley this past winter, even after acquiring Logan Forsythe as their everyday second baseman. The club still felt he could aid the team in a part-time role. Utley accepted a reduced salary and reduced playing time to play near his home in California.
Bringing back Utley represented the last piece of reunion conducted by the front office over the winter. The team brought back 21 members of the 25-man roster which fell in the National League Championship Series to the Cubs last October. The Dodgers were reminded of their fate once again before Wednesday’s game.
“We don’t really focus on last year too much,” Toles said. “We just want to go out there and win for us. It’s 2017. That’s last year. It’s over. They can enjoy it, but we’re looking forward to this year.”
The temperature dipped to 45 degrees at the first pitch, with a hearty wind whipping off Lake Michigan. Roberts watched would-be homers wilt in the air.
Toles found a trajectory to break through. He turned on a low fastball from Cubs starter John Lackey, and “I hit it on a line, so the wind had no factor,” he said. The baseball cleared the right-field bleachers. The Dodgers would not require any more offense.
McCarthy (2-0, 1.50 ERA) thrived on the dull satisfaction of groundouts. The defense turned three double plays. McCarthy also benefited from the wind, which knocked down a pair of well-struck drives, one by first baseman Anthony Rizzo in the fifth and another by catcher Willson Contreras in the sixth.
“The last time I pitched here, I gave up a wind home run, the other way,” McCarthy said. “I’ll take the ones that go in my favor.”
Utley led off the ninth with a walk. Two batters later, with two outs and Toles at the plate, he prepared for aggression on the bases. He set up well deep enough that he could sprint at second base without rounding off his turn toward third. The angle would allow him to maintain his momentum after Contreras dropped the third strike and bounced a throw to first base.
Woodward identified three moments when the average player would falter: before the pitch, when runners rarely take a wide enough lead on a full count with two outs. At second base, when runners often slow down to read the play behind them. And at third base, when runners brake in assumption that the play will be made in front of them.
“He never stopped,” Woodward said.
The ball dribbled past the foul line. Second baseman Ben Zobrist scooped it up. He fired toward Rondon, who could not secure the throw. Utley collided with Rondon, who tumbled over. Utley pulled his 38-year-old body out of the dirt and jogged to his dugout.
Woodward planned to add the moment to Utley’s reel. Utley declined to place much emphasis on the play. His ability to make the spectacular seem monotonous is another of his gifts.
“I kept going,” Utley said. “And it worked out.”
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes