Chase Utley had walked to the plate at Citizens Bank Park 3,297 times in his career prior to Tuesday night, and rarely, if ever, did he express any outward emotion. That's just not in his DNA. Utley has always been a calm, collected player with almost intimidating stoicism.
He'd walked to the plate in South Philly with Led Zeppelin's Kashmir playing nearly 3,300 times — during pennant pushes, elimination games and World Series — but when that same song played just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, the vibe was much different than it's ever been. For the first time, Utley was a visitor, batting in the top half of the inning and facing the team with which he spent 13 seasons.
After receiving a two-minute standing ovation and tipping his helmet multiple times to the fans (watch introduction here), Utley struck out looking at a Vince Velasquez fastball. The fans booed. They were booing their own pitcher striking out the opposing leadoff hitter.
Everyone expected the series opener, Utley's first game back in Philadelphia since he was traded to the Dodgers last August, to be surreal. But the uniqueness of the situation didn't really set in until seeing the fan reaction to his at-bats.
That first-inning strikeout "was probably one of the most nervous at-bats I've ever had at any level," Utley said. He referred to the tribute as "completely overwhelming" and was glad to get it out of the way.
"There's no doubt there's a little extra adrenaline that's flowing," Utley said. "Adrenaline can be your friend at times. After that first at-bat I was able to calm down a little bit and there you have it."
There you have it indeed. After striking out and flying out against Velasquez, Utley launched a 427-foot home run to right field in the fifth inning to put the Dodgers up two runs. The next inning, L.A. batted around, with Utley walking to begin the rally and hitting a grand slam to cap it in a 15-5 Dodgers' win (see Instant Replay).
Of course Utley homered twice in his long-awaited return to Philly (see story). He's a guy who has made a 14-year career out of delivering big hits in dramatic moments. The walk-off single in August of 2007 to complete the sweep over the Mets. The first-inning home run in Game 1 of the 2008 World Series. The two homers in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series. The moonshot to right field in San Francisco in 2009, two pitches after Jonathan Sanchez threw a fastball at his head. The first-inning home run in his first game back in 2012 after missing 75 with a knee injury.
It was almost expected that Utley would thrive under these strange conditions.
The fans were ecstatic to see Utley succeed even if it was in Dodger Blue. Utley received standing ovations and gave curtain calls after both home runs. For many in attendance, that will be the first and only time they ever see a visiting player coerced into giving a curtain call (see sights and sounds from the night).
"I think it was incredible," longtime teammate Ryan Howard said of the fan reaction. "I thought it was very classy by the fans. ... I think it just goes to show you can change the uniform but he's always going to be a Phillie at heart. And I think he's always going to be a Phillie to everyone here. I thought it was great, it was awesome for the fans to give him a curtain call again. It shows what he was able to do here and the impact he had on the fans."
Some of Utley's Dodgers teammates tried to hype up his return. Some didn't. Utley himself, in typical Chase Utley fashion, "tried to downplay it as much as possible." But he admitted "it's something I've been looking forward to for a long time."
"I should be thanking them," Utley said of the fans. "They motivated us, they pushed us in the right direction, and I'm a true believer that the fans made us better players individually and gave us a chance to win on a daily basis. The true thank you should be to them."
The lovefest between Utley and the 28,118 in attendance almost made the actual game an afterthought. There wasn't much concern over how Velasquez responded after last week's shellacking. Few were focused on the home runs by Cameron Rupp or Cesar Hernandez or frustrated to see Hernandez thrown out on the bases again. How many people will remember Elvis Araujo forcing in three runs with a bases-loaded hit by pitch and two walks?
"As players, we try to just continue to play the game as the game's supposed to be played. But I think it was something bigger tonight," Howard said. "I definitely think it was something bigger than a game tonight. For Chase to come back and do what he did tonight — hopefully he's done doing that — but that's just the kind of player he is and the kind of guy he is."
Howard did a little something, too. He hit a 422-foot blast into the Dodgers' bullpen in the bottom of the seventh for his 18th home run of the season and sixth since the All-Star break. Howard is red-hot, hitting .358 in the second half with 10 extra-base hits and 15 RBIs in 19 games.
Usually, when Howard and Utley homer in the same game, the Phillies win. Times have changed.
"It's crazy, man. I'm out there, we're trying to beat him but it's also tough too because I played so many years alongside him and always want to see him do well," Howard said. "I don't think you can script it any better for him."
Utley, 20 minutes later and in a different room, echoed the same sentiment.
"Any time Ryan hits a home run — obviously it was against us so it was bittersweet — but I'm definitely happy when Ryan's successful," Utley said. ... "I think there's some exceptions to be made. I talked to Ryan a little bit before the game, I talked to him when I was on first base. Any time I'm around him I'm gonna talk to him for sure. He's one of my better friends, and I'm happy that he's playing well right now."
Even someone like Velasquez, who isn't too familiar with Utley, understood the magnitude of what went down Tuesday night. To his credit, Velasquez retired Utley the first two times and kept the Dodgers in check through four innings. He unraveled in the fifth and sixth, but still feels grateful to have pitched in that environment.
"It's a good experience, it feels good to be a part of that," Velasquez said. "I don't really know the guy much myself, but to have an ovation like that is incredible.
"I understand, he's a legend here."
That he is. And on Tuesday night, the legend of Chase Utley, primetime performer, only grew.