Phillies need more production from Utley, Howard

October 8, 2008 9:19:59 PM PDT
For all their big hits and long homers during the regular season, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have to provide the Philadelphia Phillies with more offense in October. The slumping stars were a combined 4-for-26 in the first round of the playoffs against Milwaukee, but strong pitching and timely hitting from other Phillies carried the team into the NL championship series against Los Angeles. Utley and Howard also had troubles in their postseason debuts last year, and Philadelphia was swept out of the first round by Colorado.

If the Phillies are going to beat the Dodgers and advance to the World Series for the first time since 1993, they'll need their 3-4 hitters to break out of their funks. Game 1 of the NLCS is Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park.

"I'm trying to find holes, trying to put together good at-bats, trying to get on for the next guy," Utley said. "It's as simple as that. See the ball, hit the ball."

Utley hit .292 with a career-best 33 homers and 104 RBIs this season, doing most of his damage before the All-Star break. But he was just 2-for-15 with four strikeouts against the Brewers. One of the hits was a two-run double that center fielder Mike Cameron should have caught in Game 1.

The three-time All-Star second baseman is batting .154 (4-for-26) with nine strikeouts, one extra-base hit and two RBIs in his postseason career.

Howard led the majors with 48 homers and 146 RBIs this year, despite a career-low .251 average. He helped the Phillies win their second consecutive NL East title with an outstanding final month, hitting .352 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in September.

A leading candidate to win his second MVP award in three years, Howard reverted to his early season struggles in the playoffs. He was 2-for-11 with five strikeouts against the Brewers. The 2006 NL MVP is batting .217 (5-for-23) with 12 strikeouts, two extra-base hits and two RBIs in two postseason series.

Combined, Utley and Howard are hitting .184 (9-for-49) with 21 Ks, four extra-base hits and four RBIs in the playoffs. Those are the kind of numbers that earn star players bad reputations in big games. Just ask Alex Rodriguez.

Howard gave credit to the Brewers' pitching staff for limiting his production. They also took the bat out of his hands with five walks, including three intentional passes. Pat Burrell made them pay after the last one, swatting a three-run homer in the series clincher.

"You expect the other team to step it up in the playoffs," Howard said. "You're not going to hit home runs every day. We know that. We just have to figure out how to put up some runs some way, somehow."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said the key for Howard is more patience and better pitch selection.

"He's got to be very patient and not chase pitches out of the zone," Manuel said. "He's got to get balls to hit and stay in the middle of the field or hit the ball to left field. Then when he does that, that's what brings him right back around."

Howard and Utley are left-handed hitters, so they'll be glad to see the Dodgers' righty-laden rotation this series. They were 0-for-7 with six strikeouts in Game 2 against Milwaukee. Lefty CC Sabathia started that game, lasting 3 2-3 innings in the 5-2 loss. "CC was tough," Utley said. "The Dodgers have a lot of right-handed pitching, which will be nice."

Utley hit .355 (11-for-31) with two homers and five RBIs against Los Angeles this year. Howard batted .133 (4-for-30) with two homers and nine RBIs.

While Howard finished strong after a slow start, Utley's best month was April, when he hit .352. His average dropped to .279 over the last five months and he had 12 homers in the final 103 games after belting 21 in the first 59.

General manager Pat Gillick said during the summer that Utley was bothered by a hip injury, but he didn't miss any action and insists he's not hurt.

"I think when Chase Utley's hip is bothering him enough where he can't play, I think he's going to walk right in there and tell me," Manuel said. "He ain't nowhere near there yet. That's kind of how that goes."


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