07/13/08 1:59 PM ET
Underdog Utley goes for Derby crown
Star second baseman is fourth Phillie to appear in contest
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com
That distinction goes to Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton, whose batting-practice moon shots have already gained legendary status around the game. Utley hits line drives in batting practice and during games, line drives that sometimes land beyond the fence.Some Phillies who witnessed Hamilton's batting practice a few weeks ago reluctantly agreed. But ... "Don't count out our guy, though," Pat Burrell said. Once the first meatball sails in from bullpen catcher Mick Billmeyer, Utley will go for the win in the three-round tournament on Monday at 8 p.m. ET, and attempt to join previous Phillies winners Ryan Howard and Bobby Abreu. The Derby can be seen live on MLB.com by MLB.TV and All-Star package subscribers, and on ESPN.
"I have my work cut out for me," Utley said, adding that he never pictured himself in a Home Run Derby. "I was in one in A ball, in the Florida State League, and that didn't go well. Everybody was shut out, and the guys that advanced were the guys that had the league lead at the time."That won't be the case this time, where participants Lance Berkman, Evan Longoria, Grady Sizemore, Hamilton, Dan Uggla, Justin Morneau and Ryan Braun have a few home runs to their credit. Utley likened the competition to a round of batting practice. He doesn't consider himself a power hitter and said he won't alter his swing too much. A short porch in right field appears to give left-handed hitters such as Utley the edge. "He just needs to get one, and he'll be fine," said Billmeyer. "You never know, he might fool you. When he hits [batting practice], he tries to put it up the middle. If he wants to put backspin on it, pull the ball over that short porch, he can do that, too." Billmeyer will be looking to exercise some demons in his second pitching appearance in a Home Run Derby. He threw to then-Phillies first baseman Jim Thome in Houston in 2004, and the excited slugger didn't get out of the first round. Fans let Billmeyer have it when he returned to Philadelphia, and he responded with, "Talk to me after the next one." Utley asked Billmeyer out of loyalty. He hits in Billmeyer's group each day, and asked him a few weeks ago, just in case. Billmeyer was thrilled, and figures Utley's demeanor will be a benefit. "Thome gets a little amped up," Billmeyer said of Thome, who was also shut out in 1997, while with Cleveland. "Between the practice round and the Derby, he hit three times. [Then, in the Derby], he hit about four or five foul right away." The key for Utley, as told by 2005 winner Howard, is not to swing at the ball. "You get as much time as you need," Howard said. "Just get a good rhythm, and if it's not a long ball, step out and regroup. Grab a Gatorade or whatever. I think he'll be fine. Hit 'em hard and hit 'em far." Abreu and Howard won back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and Howard returned in 2007, but didn't advance out of Round 1. Utley will give the Phillies five straight years with a Derby participant. If only it were a line-drive derby, Utley would be a shoo-in. That said, he's had two stretches this season where he's homered in five straight games. "He's like an assassin," said Billmeyer, who joked that he'll nothing but "splits and sinkers" to Utley. "He just stays through the middle of the field. He never tries to take one out in BP. Later this week, he might try. He's going to try to win it, but he doesn't want a bagel." If nothing else, the second baseman will be prepared. A voracious connoisseur of video of opposing pitchers, Utley was asked if he would study Billmeyer's motion. "He throws a lot of fastballs," Utley said.
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.