Utley's erratic throws hurting Phillies

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Utley's fielding gaffes were the talk of the town when the Philadelphia Phillies returned home Saturday after splitting the first two games of the NL championship series at Los Angeles.

Game 3 is Sunday night in soggy Philadelphia, weather permitting. The forecast calls for showers all day and it's expected to be 42 degrees at game time. Cliff Lee starts for the Phillies against Hiroki Kuroda.

The weather will make it tough to grip the ball and make accurate throws. Utley, a four-time All-Star second baseman, had enough problems throwing to first in sunny L.A. The Phillies overcame his blunder in Game 1, but it hurt them on Friday.

Trailing 1-0, the Dodgers got their first two runners on in the bottom of the eighth. After failing to put down a sacrifice, Russell Martin then hit a sharp grounder to third baseman Pedro Feliz. It was a routine double-play ball except Utley's relay throw sailed wide of first. Instead of two outs and a runner on third, the Dodgers had a run and one out. They went on to score again and held on for a 2-1 victory.

Utley typically wasn't around to speak to reporters during Saturday's one-hour, open clubhouse session. But manager Charlie Manuel and others had his back.

"I'm sure nobody in Philadelphia hates that more than Chase, but at the same time, he'll correct it," Manuel said. "I have all the faith in the world in him as far as that goes. That's going to happen to anybody."

Ronnie Belliard was bearing down on Utley and slid hard into second, possibly forcing him to rush his throw. Belliard, a fellow second baseman, sympathized with Utley.

"It's nothing mental," Belliard said. "He's a good second baseman. It's a difficult situation to turn a double play like that. You have to forget about it and do your job."

In the series opener Thursday night, Utley made a similarly poor throw on what should have been an inning-ending, double-play grounder hit by Andre Ethier in the fifth inning. Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels was visibly upset that shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Utley couldn't make the turn. Manny Ramirez followed with a two-run homer that cut Philadelphia's lead to 5-4, but the Phillies won 8-6.

Rollins, a Gold Glove winner the last two years, was slow to shuffle the ball and that may have thrown off Utley's timing.

"Looked like he had trouble gripping the ball, really taking it out of his glove," Manuel said of Utley. "Looked like he had trouble getting a hold of it."

In between the two errors, Utley made three iffy throws on routine grounders. All three resulted in outs, but his erratic tosses suggest this could be more than a simple case of two bad throws under difficult circumstances in clutch spots.

Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa, who managed Utley when he first came up in Philadelphia, doesn't buy it.

"No, no, no," Bowa said when asked if Utley's issues are comparable to Sax and Knoblauch. "I don't think it's a problem at all. He rushed two throws. It was coincidental that he did it two games in a row."

Sax, the NL Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers in 1982, inexplicably stopped being able to make routine throws to first in his sophomore season. Sax committed 30 errors that season, many on errant tosses.

Knoblauch began experiencing the same problem shortly after joining the New York Yankees in 1999. A former Gold Glove winner with Minnesota in 1997, Knoblauch was moved to the outfield because he never regained his ability to throw to first.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre managed Knoblauch in New York. He's not ready to put Utley in that category.

"I don't think it's an issue," Torre said. "If I was Charlie, I wouldn't be concerned about him. He's too tough a kid and he's too good of a player. Stuff like that happens. Sometimes there's no rhyme or reason why it happens, but the nature of the game is what it is."

Utley played second at UCLA, but the Phillies tried to make him a third baseman after selecting him in the first round of the 2000 amateur draft. He committed 28 errors in one season at third, quickly ending that experiment.

Utley never was slick with his glove and still isn't smooth, but he's worked hard on his defense and turned himself into an above-average fielder.

"With 10 being the best and zero being the worst, he started out being a four and he's close to the top right now," Bowa said. "Everything was herky jerky and he still does that, but the bottom line is you look at the end result and this guy is a player. Utley is the least of their worries. Give me 25 Utleys. You'll win a lot of championships."

The Phillies already won one World Series with Utley. They're hoping his defense doesn't prevent them from getting another title.

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