Utley at center of Phils' defensive struggles
Second baseman commits second error in as many games
LOS ANGELES -- It goes down as another Phillies bullpen meltdown, just like the script called for. But if the Phils' infield had played its usual excellent defense, the relievers might well be off the hook -- maybe even the heroes of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
Instead, three consecutive defensive missteps set the stage for a two-run rally in the Dodgers' 2-1 win over the reigning World Series champions. Six outs from a commanding, even dominating, 2-0 series lead, the Phillies fell apart in most uncharacteristic fashion. The long flight home will be a lot quieter as a result.
At the center of the struggles, for the second straight day, was MVP candidate Chase Utley. Typically a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, Utley made a throwing error for the second consecutive day after making four in the entire regular season. His gaffe wasn't the only one, but it was by far the biggest, and it capped two days during which Utley rarely looked comfortable making a throw to first base.
Utley and his teammates played down the situation, but it can't help being a concern when a star defender repeatedly has difficulty getting the ball to first base.
"He can correct that," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Chase is better than that. Those mistakes that you make like that, that happens sometimes. ... Two days in a row, he's made one. I know it plays a part in a game, and so does he. But at the same time, I've got a lot of faith in him. He's the one guy in the world that will work on it and correct it -- it's Chase Utley. Sometimes that's just the way the game goes."
After seven mesmerizing, turn-back-the-clock innings from Pedro Martinez, Manuel called on Chan Ho Park to face Casey Blake to start the eighth. Dodger Stadium had already begun to buzz, thanks to the now-traditional playing of "Don't Stop Believin'" -- including one fan belting it out especially vehemently on the video board -- and a shot on that same board of Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. If there was an inning for the Dodgers to rally, this was it.
Blake began the inning by hitting a hard shot to the left side -- well struck, but playable. Pedro Feliz got his glove on it but couldn't make a play, and the ball skittered into left field for a leadoff single. Feliz, a quality defender in his own right, was playing a little closer to the line than usual, cutting down on the likelihood of a double. Instead his placement led to a key single.
"I didn't make it," Feliz said. "I tried my best and didn't get it."
Ronnie Belliard tried to sacrifice pinch-runner Juan Pierre over but found himself with a single -- thanks, ironically, to a poor bunt. Belliard's bunt shot farther than expected, to the right side of the mound. Park didn't get a good angle on it and stumbled without making a play. By the time Ryan Howard had fielded the ball, Belliard had reached, and the Phillies were in trouble.
"I think the bunt was a big play, the fact that it got by Chan Ho, and it got over in no man's land where Howard couldn't get to it," Manuel said.
Still, Park made the pitch that should have come close to getting him out of the inning. Russell Martin grounded to third base, a tailor-made double-play ball. Feliz made the throw to second for out No. 1, though Utley didn't appear to be on the bag when he received the throw. Utley turned to throw to first base, and the ball sailed far out of Howard's reach. Martin was safe, Pierre scored and the score was tied.
"I had plenty of time to turn it," Utley said. "I just didn't make a good throw."
In a vacuum, such a play wouldn't be a worry from as steady a defender as Utley. But in light of his throwing error on Thursday, also on a double-play ball, as well as several throws over the two games that Howard had to work to corral, it's clear something hasn't been right with Utley's throws. His footwork has looked a bit off at times, for one thing. But Utley maintains that they're two isolated incidents.
"Yesterday, I forced it," he said. "I didn't really think we had a shot, so I figured I'd take a chance and try to turn it. Today was a different story. I just wasn't able to make a good throw."
Dodgers manager Joe Torre felt that Utley may have rushed the throw, although Utley said that was not the case.
"I think Belliard may have had something to do with it, going into second hard on this one today," Torre said. "Last night it didn't look like [Utley] had a grip on the ball. That's part of the game. Errors are part of the game, and strikeouts and all that stuff. I mean, I'd certainly like to have his problems. He's pretty special."
Either way, the Dodgers took advantage once they were given the gift. Jim Thome's single and a walk to Rafael Furcal loaded the bases. After Matt Kemp struck out, J.A. Happ walked Andre Ethier to score Martin for the winning run. Without the free passes, the Dodgers wouldn't have scored the go-ahead run. But without the defensive foibles, they wouldn't have had the chance.
"A lot of things could have gone differently," Utley said. "But Chan Ho made a good pitch to get a ground ball, which we wanted in that situation. I just wasn't able to turn the double play."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.