Commentary

Reasons for Utley's errors a mystery

Oh yeah, and some other Useless Information from the NLCS

Originally Published: October 17, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The New York Post called him "Chase Knoblauch." There were folks all over Dodger Stadium wondering whether it was appropriate to invoke the name "Steve Sax."

Well, hang on. It's still safe to sit in the lower deck and eat your popcorn without wearing a football helmet when Chase Utley is playing second base for the Phillies. But as the first two games of the National League Championship Series have proved, Utley's throwing has abruptly become an issue.

And not one that's easy to understand, either.

This is a man who has willed himself into one of the finest defensive second basemen in baseball. Just ask the Fielding Bible, which has ranked him No. 1 among NL second basemen three years in a row.

This is also a man who committed only four throwing errors all year. Four. So anybody trying to track down Sax or Knoblauch for reaction is massively overreacting.

But in Game 1 of the NLCS, Utley threw away a potential double-play relay. Then in Game 2 he did it again, with much more disastrous results.

It was a throw that allowed the tying run to score in the eighth inning of a one-run game. It was a throw that turned out to be the centerpiece of the Dodgers' game-winning two-run rally. It was a throw, in other words, that has a lot to do with why this series is dead even, at one win apiece, heading into Game 3 Sunday night in Philadelphia.

But the concern over Chase Utley's throwing glitches is about more than just a couple of double plays that weren't turned. Even more ominously, over the past couple of weeks, Utley has seemed to be hesitating, double-clutching, overthinking and, at times, making downright precarious tosses to first base on plays that are flat-out routine.

[+] EnlargeChase Utley
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Chase Utley's bad throw in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS has elevated concerns about the second baseman's suddenly suspect arm.

It's an issue his teammates can't help noticing. And it's clear they'd have an easier time explaining how airplanes leave the ground than how their All-Star second baseman has developed this mild, but still unforeseen, case of the yips.

"He's a great player, obviously," Phillies reliever Ryan Madson said. "I don't know. … It's human nature, man. That's just part of it."

"It surprised me, very much so," Utley's long-time double-play partner, Jimmy Rollins, said of Utley's errors on those double-play balls. "He's done it before. But he usually makes the correction right away. … One thing you know about Chase: He'll make sure to work on it till he fixes it."

After the first of Utley's errant DP relays, in the fifth inning Thursday, Rollins stepped forward to take responsibility. As he went to feed that ball to Utley, Rollins said, the baseball was still spinning and "I couldn't get a clean exchange." And once Rollins hesitated, it threw off Utley's timing coming across the bag on a play that's all about rhythm.

"It was just the hesitation from me," said Rollins, one of the most sure-handed shortstops on the planet. "And it just kind of took him out of his rhythm."

But on DP No. 2, there was no convenient explanation. Dodgers manager Joe Torre speculated that Ronnie Belliard's takeout slide might have had something to do with it. Replays proved otherwise.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel's theory Saturday, when the issue came up again back in Philadelphia, was that Utley "wasn't lined up straight toward the first baseman. It looked like he came across [the bag] and wanted to get rid of it, and he was lined up the wrong way."

Then there were suggestions that Utley's feed from third baseman Pedro Feliz threw him off. But Utley was having none of that -- or any of those rationalizations.

You'd have a hard time finding a guy less interested in excuse-making in the solar system than Chase Utley. So no matter how many potential alibis were floated in his direction, Utley swatted away every one of them.

Every answer he gave was a variation on the answer before it: "Just a bad throw. … I had plenty of time. … I just didn't make a good throw," he said.

But there's a difference between answers and explanations. And no one in his clubhouse seemed to have one -- at least not for the bigger-picture issue lurking behind those two E's on the scoreboard in this series.

"He's not your typical-looking guy [in his throwing mechanics]," said Phillies infield coach Sam Perlozzo, who has worked tirelessly with Utley this year on refining his double-play turns. "But he's a guy who gets the job done. No matter what it looks like, Chase gets the job done. I have not had any issues at all with his throwing."

And neither had anyone else on this team -- until very recently. So what exactly is going on here? Is this coming from Chase Utley's mind? From his surgically repaired hip? From nowhere in particular? Hard to say. But if we're all quoting Steve Sax prolifically a week from now, you'll know the Phillies have a problem on their hands.

NLCS Useless-Information Department

Clayton Kershaw

Kershaw

• No one disputes that Clayton Kershaw has world-class stuff and a big-time future. But it turns out he was still a 100 percent unprecedented choice to start Game 1 of this series. Here's why:

Before that start -- and, actually, after that start, too, come to think of it -- Kershaw hadn't won a game since way back on July 18. Now obviously, that wasn't all his fault, since he had a 2.54 ERA in that span. But the bottom line is, that still made 12 winless starts in a row going into this series.

So how many pitchers in history, you ask, have started Game 1 of any postseason series when they were coming off at least a dozen starts without a win?

That would be zero, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In fact, before Kershaw, no pitcher had ever started a postseason opener following a winless streak longer than EIGHT starts.

The previous record-holders: Atlanta's Greg Maddux in the 2001 NLCS opener (seven regular-season starts, one postseason start) and Kansas City's Larry Gura in the 1980 ALCS opener (final eight regular-season starts).

Chad Billingsley

Billingsley

Chad Billingsley (12-11) led the Dodgers in wins this season. But unless something changes, he won't start a game in this NLCS. And here's why that now constitutes an official trend:

Amazingly, that would make two consecutive postseason series in which the Phillies will be facing a team that didn't start its leading winner in the entire series. They just finished missing the Rockies' win leader, the injured Jorge De La Rosa (16-9), in the NLDS.

Think that's kind of unusual? Uh, that's for sure. In the 40-year division-play era, no team has ever played back-to-back series in the same postseason without running into a start by the opposition's leading winner, according to Elias.

• Four other teams in National League history have found themselves in the kind of postseason streak the Phillies are currently riding, i.e., winners of four consecutive series (or more). But in this LCS, the Phillies have a chance to do something none of those other teams ever did:

Win five series in a row without ever trailing in games at any point -- in any of them.

The Phillies have been tied, at a win apiece, three different times now in the past two postseasons: in the 2008 World Series, in this year's Division Series and now in this NLCS. But they won Game 3 against the Rays and Rockies. And if they do that again, it puts them in position to do something that's never been done by any NL team.

The 1997-2003 Marlins, 1995-96 Braves, 1976-77 Reds and 1946-67 Cardinals also won four consecutive postseason series (or more). But only those Braves teams managed to make it through four series in a row without ever trailing. That streak ended, however, in the fifth series, the 1996 LCS, when they fell behind the Cardinals three games to one before roaring back to win in seven.

• Two more reasons the Dodgers' big comeback Friday shouldn't have shocked anybody: This game marked the 15th time (counting the postseason) the Phillies lost a game this year that they led in the eighth inning or later -- and the 13th time (counting the postseason) the Dodgers won a game they trailed in the eighth or later.

The Elias Sports Bureau reports the Phillies' 14 regular-season losses in that situation were tied (with Seattle) for most in the big leagues. And the Dodgers' 11 regular-season wins in that situation were one shy of the major league lead (behind the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Mariners).

Ryan Howard

Howard

• Now that Ryan Howard has tied the major league record (shared by Pudge Rodriguez and Bernie Williams) by driving in a run in six straight games in the same postseason, what else can he shoot for?

Well, he's two away from Lou Gehrig's all-time record for most consecutive games with an RBI spanning multiple postseasons. Gehrig's eight in a row came in the 1928 and 1932 World Series.

And only two players ever had a seven-game RBI streak over multiple postseasons -- the Yankees' Moose Skowron (1958-1960) and the Pirates' Clyde Barnhart (1925-27).

Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez's 10-game LCS RBI streak ended Friday. Elias reports that it was easily the longest in LCS history. Next-best streak: six games, by Mark McGwire (1988-89), Pudge Rodriguez (2003-06) and Kevin Youkilis (2007-08).

• Finally, this is only the fourth time the NLCS has represented a déjà vu special featuring the same two teams that played in the NLCS the year before. Anyone want to guess the others?

Never mind. Time's up. It was the Cardinals and Astros (2004-05), Braves and Pirates (1991-92) and -- hmmm, this sounds familiar -- the Dodgers and Phillies (1977-78).

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com