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Marching, in triple time

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA - "That guy over there played with Ty Cobb," said Phillies bench coach Jimy Williams, pointing to Chase Utley. "He's been here before."

Oh yeah, Jimy? How about that guy over there? The guy who's already won the MVP and who last night hit a pair of homers, tripled, and knocked in four runs. You know, Ryan Howard. Whom did he play with, Babe Ruth?

And how about the other guy over there? Another guy who's already won an MVP, and who last night belted a leadoff homer for the 28th time in his career, had three hits, and knocked in three runs. You know, Jimmy Rollins. Whom did he play with, Rogers Hornsby?

The Red Sox found out first-hand about the potency of the Phillies' lineup last night. Howard and Rollins have been MVPs, and this year Utley may make it three on the team.

Howard hit both homers to the opposite field. OK, in Citizens Bank Park that might not be saying much, but power is power. He now has 19 on the season, three behind Utley's league-leading 22.

Howard, who was hitting .195 on May 21, has been red-hot. He and Texas's Josh Hamilton are the only players in baseball this year to hit two homers and a triple in the same game. He has off-the-charts power, though his teammates and coaches are waiting for him to become a high-average hitter. They think it's coming, though he's only at .224.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel spoke last night about Howard cutting down his strikeouts because that would mean "more hits and more home runs and a higher batting average." Howard just shrugged about his 97 strikeouts to date, saying, "A strikeout is just an out. Like any other out."

Utley simply draws endless superlatives from teammates, coaches, and Manuel.

He seems cut from the cloth of another time and another place, some yesteryear gene pool of ballplayers. Though he was 0 for 5 last night, he is hitting .303 with the 22 homers, 62 RBIs, and a .401 on base percentage. This is after hitting .332 with 22 homers and 103 RBIs in 2007, a season in which he was injured.

"I just knew he was going to have a blowout year," said Howard, who takes pressure off Utley by doing a lot of talking to the media while Utley goes through his pregame routine. "His work ethic in amazing."

How about the power?

"To people yeah, it's a surprise," said Howard. "To all of us in here who have watched him, no, we knew he had that. I call it sneaky power. Sometimes we'll look at video and watch his swings and wonder how he hit that ball to the wall with an incomplete swing. It's really something special to watch."

While Utley is in an 0-for-15 drip, Howard is enjoying a 9-for-18 surge. The big man knows what it's like to have an MVP season, and he sees Utley approaching it the way Howard did two years ago.

"You just don't think about that at all," said Howard. "That's the last thing on your mind. You go through the everyday stuff and you're so into what you're doing day after day that thinking about awards is the farthest thing from your mind.

"At the end, yeah, you look back and you say, 'Gee, I did that or this,' and you can enjoy it afterward. But Chase, man, he's such a guy who always has his eye on the ball."

Howard is much different than Utley with the media. He always speaks. Utley barely ever does. Rollins also can be very personable. But Utley chooses his words carefully.

When Utley messes up - which is rare - he fesses up, just as he did Sunday when he made two throwing errors, including one in the 10th, in a loss to the Cardinals. He was there afterward to blame himself for the loss.

This is precisely the way Jim Rice was as a player.

Rice was often seen as aloof, even anti-media, but the fact is he never wanted to bring attention to himself with his words - only by his actions on the field. Rice wouldn't be around for the media if he went 4 for 4 and knocked in the winning run because he felt that was simply his duty as a ballplayer and a team leader. Ditto Utley.

He spends his time watching video and working on what some believe is as a close to a perfect swing as you can get.

"I'll tell you, the last time I saw anyone swing the bat like that, I was looking at George Brett," said Phillies reliever Tom Gordon. "Man, I have not seen a player hit a baseball that hard all the time like Chase. He's not a big guy, but he has enough strength to hit it out.

"I was a teammate of George Brett's and he never had to make adjustments. Chase is the same way. I played with [Derek] Jeter and Nomar [Garciaparra] in those incredible years he had in Boston, but this guy is just the best. His all-around game is like nothing I've ever seen before.

"Every night, he does something that opens your eyes."

Not last night. The eye-opener was Howard, rumbling to third on his triple, a ball Jacoby Ellsbury dived for and had fall out of his glove in right-center.

Howard's 19 homers are tied for second in the league, and his 62 RBIs tie him for the league lead (with Utley and San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez).

"His production is right at the top of the league," said Manuel. "That speaks for itself. If he cut down his strikeouts, like I said two years ago, he'll hit .300."

Fact is, Rollins, Howard, and Utley all play together. Imagine three MVPs on the same team.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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