After first week, positive signs for Utley, Howard
CHICAGO -- Chase Utley and Ryan Howard slipped out of the cramped clubhouse at Wrigley Field without a word on Sunday afternoon.
They made their noise on the field in an 8-3 loss to the Cubs.
Utley doubled, walked, was hit by a pitch and knocked in a run. Howard went a loud 0-for-5, hitting two balls to the warning track, one to center and one to left. He also hit two hard line drives, one that Cubs second baseman Emilio Bonifacio caught in right field because he timed his jump perfectly and had been playing the shift, the other to deep left field to end the game.
"He hit the baseball on the screws, right at people," Jimmy Rollins said of Howard. "That's a good sign. Eventually, those balls will start backspinning and getting out of the yard."
If Utley consistently produces in the No. 3 hole and Howard gets a few of those balls to backspin like Rollins said, it would be a tremendous boost for a team that scored the fourth-fewest runs in baseball last season. Despite missing the postseason each of the past two years, the Phillies opened the season last week in Texas with a franchise-record payroll.
They are all-in with such veterans as Utley and Howard.
It is just six games, but Utley is hitting .458 with three doubles, two home runs, six RBIs, three walks, two strikeouts and a National League-leading 1.369 OPS. Howard is hitting .240 with one double, one home run, three RBIs, three walks, nine strikeouts and a .721 OPS.
Utley had a nice 2013 following two seasons plagued by knee injuries, so there has been less focus on him entering 2014, although a poor Spring Training had more than a few anxious fans concerned.
Naturally, Utley never worried.
"Obviously, you're looking for results in Spring Training," Utley said, "but being around for a while, I know that's not the most important thing. The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season."
But Howard has been the center of attention. He missed much of the previous two seasons because of injuries to his left leg, and the Phillies need him to produce in order to have a shot to win.
Are there reasons to be encouraged?
"He's swinging the bat well," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "I like him staying in the middle of the field the way he's doing, and he's going to left-center field with pitches, he's driving the ball. He hit the last on the nose to left field [on Sunday]. Those are all good signs. He's squaring the balls up and he's having real good aggressive swings and contact. And also, he's swinging at strikes. That's a good combination for him."
The Phils have faced three left-handed starting pitchers in their first six games, which is something to consider when looking at Howard's early results, because southpaws have been his kryptonite. He hit just .173 (31-for-179) with nine home runs, 29 RBIs, eight walks and 84 strikeouts against them the past two years. Howard's .575 OPS against lefties in that span ranked 288th out of 304 hitters with 150 or more plate appearances against them.
Howard had struggled so much against lefties that Sandberg said during the offseason that he would consider platooning Howard at first base for the betterment of the team if he did not improve.
But both of Howard's extra-base hits and each of his three RBIs have come against lefties. He also singled off Cubs left-hander Travis Wood on Friday, which set up another Phillies run. Of course, it must be noted that seven of Howard's nine strikeouts are against lefties, with more than a few coming after he chased a pitch far outside the strike zone.
That's what makes Howard's first week so interesting -- 14 at-bats against lefties, three clutch hits, seven strikeouts.
"Those lefties in Texas were tough," Marlon Byrd said. "The more he sees lefties, the more pitches he sees, he can pull that ball closer to him. He's really starting to find that groove. The big thing is, he's healthy. When you're healthy, you can get extra work in the cage, extra work in BP, making sure he's keeping that front hip in. That's a big key with him facing righties and lefties. But it's very tough to do against lefties, because they come from behind him and he doesn't see that many."
Rollins also believes that Howard's health is key.
"He's getting back on his legs, which is something he hasn't been able to do in a number of years," Rollins said. "So we're starting to see him come around, getting used to being on his legs again. It's going to be a good thing for him."
If Utley and Howard hit, it will be a very good thing for the Phillies, who open a 10-game homestand on Tuesday against the Brewers. The Phils are 3-3, and Sunday's loss was the first time they never held a lead in a game.
Rollins said that it would be nice to play well at Citizens Bank Park, to "get the fans back in the seats. Get it back to the baseball that we know and they know."
Utley and Howard hitting together at the same time is something fans knew for a long time.
"We haven't had that in maybe about four years," Rollins said. "It's a good start. First week is done, and we're off to going home and playing good baseball."