Phillies

Chase Utley makes it clear where Phillies fans rank in his heart

Chase Utley makes it clear where Phillies fans rank in his heart

Phillies fans, if you’re wondering why Chase Utley announced his intention to retire while there was still more than two months to go in the season, well, throw your chest out and take a bow.

He did it because of you.

“One-hundred percent,” Utley said upon arriving at Citizens Bank Park with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday afternoon.

Utley spent 13 seasons with the Phillies, played in five postseasons, won a World Series and a big place in the hearts of fans for his excellent performance and all-out-all-the-time style of play.

He wanted the chance to be able to say goodbye to the fans.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and I’ve been trying to figure out how I’m going to go out,” the 39-year-old second baseman said. “I thought it was important to let the Philadelphia Phillies fans know that this is going to be the last time that I’m going to have the chance to play in this ballpark. So yeah, this was a huge factor in the timing of the announcement.

“Whether I was going to continue to play another few years or not, this city was an experience that I’ll never forget. We had some great success here and the way this city supported this team over those years is pretty remarkable. I’ve said this a number of times over the years but fans in this city really elevated our game and made us focus a little bit more. It added a little bit of intensity and adrenaline. In my opinion, those are things that can make a team better.”

Utley, who was traded to the Dodgers in August 2015, is a part-time player with the Dodgers, but an important one, revered from the clubhouse to the front office for his leadership and character — just as he was in Philadelphia. He started at second base and batted eighth for the Dodgers on Monday night.

What should not be lost in the nostalgia of this three-game series is the fact that both the Dodgers and Phillies enter as first-place teams with thin leads in their divisions. The baseball is paramount. And who knows, if things work out maybe these two teams could meet in October and this won’t be Utley’s last time in Citizens Bank Park as a player.

“That would be a trip,” he said.

Utley will not be able to attend the Phillies’ alumni weekend celebration Aug. 3-5 because he will be playing for the Dodgers. The 2008 World Series champion Phillies will be honored that weekend.

“Winning the World Series in 2008 is probably the highlight of my career,” Utley said.

He mentioned that he keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, including Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. Utley was the best second baseman in Phillies history, Rollins the best shortstop and Howard the best first baseman. Those 2008 Phillies had hot arms such as Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge and superb role players such as Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino.

But fans always had a special affection for Utley because, in addition to being a gifted player, he was a grinder.

“It obviously makes me feel good that they’ve been so supportive of me over the years,” he said. “It’s a blue-collar city. It’s a city that respects guys that play hard, guys that want to win. I feel like I did that when I was here. I still do that. I think the success that we had, the team that we had, really helped that. It wasn’t just me over those years. It was a number of guys. And we fed off the energy here in this park.

“It’s something that I’ll never forget. It gives me chills just thinking about it.”

Utley was traded as part of the Phillies’ rebuild. The team is on the rise now and it’s no secret that it covets Utley’s new Dodger teammate, Manny Machado, who will be a free agent in the offseason.

Utley was asked what he might tell a prominent free agent who was considering Philadelphia as a destination.

“If you want to play in front of great fans that want to win in a beautiful ballpark … as long as you can deal with the humidity,” Utley said.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Machado is from Miami.

And Chase Utley is from Long Beach, California.

But part of him will always be a Philadelphian.

His decision to consider the city and Phillies fans in his retirement announcement is testament to that.

“I can’t thank the fans enough for what they brought out in us,” Utley said. “A lot of us had long careers, had a lot of success, and I don't think we would have been as good without that type of support.”

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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