LOS ANGELES — Chase Utley was an August waiver pickup who was only going to be a bit player for the Los Angeles Dodgers down the stretch.
As things turned out, he still is a bit player. And if you ask the Mets as this suddenly emotional National League Division Series swings back to New York for Game 3 on Monday, they’ll tell you he’s a two-bit player.
Utley’s tough, hard and late takeout slide in the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night fractured the right leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, allowed the Dodgers to tie a game they stormed back to win 5-2, sent the umpires scrambling to the instant replay headphones, caused far more questions than had immediately available answers and left the Mets seething into the night.
“I don’t understand,” Mets captain David Wright said. “We have a neighborhood play to try to protect the middle infielders, and that didn’t happen tonight. I think the first time [Utley] touched second base was when he came back out after the play overturned. I have questions about that.
“And I thought it could be the type of slide that is called an illegal slide, if that’s the term for it, because he ended up pretty far from the bag.”
It took Utley nearly 40 minutes after the game before he came out to answer questions. And as the veteran second baseman pleaded innocence of intent, he acknowledged he had seen the replays by that point.
And his defense wasn’t exactly air-tight.
“My focus is on seeing the ball,” Utley explained. “I didn’t realize [Tejada’s] back was turned.
“Obviously it happens fast.”
Most tellingly, MLB vice president Joe Torre said late Saturday night that, “looking at it a number of times, I thought it was a little late. So that’s what I’m digesting now.”
The moment was like a freight train blowing through the evening horizon unencumbered. It happened fast, reaction was slow and everyone was left dazed.
What should have happened was, Utley should have been called out at second and Kendrick called out at first because of an illegal slide.
Bing, bam, boom: Inning-ending double play—Mets still leading 2-1 and on to the eighth inning.
Instead, what happened was this: Trailing 2-1 with runners on first and third with one out in the seventh against portly Mets reliever Bartolo Colon (yes, he relieved Noah Syndergaard Saturday night), Howie Kendrick sent a bouncer up the middle. Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy fielded it and flipped to Tejada, who was covering second. It was slow in developing, like a quarterback leaving a receiver vulnerable by floating a pass over the middle.
Tejada took the ball, his foot appearing to be maybe an inch off the second base bag, then did an awkward reverse spin to try to complete a double play that clearly never was going to happen. That’s when Utley, clearly sliding late with what looked more like a rolling tackle than a slide, smashed into him.
Initially, second base ump Chris Guccione called Utley out at second, and Hernandez scored to make it 2-2.
And that’s when the controversy started. The umpires went to the review, and the ruling was that Tejada’s foot was just off second base, so Utley was safe.
According to an MLB spokesperson, the play was reviewable because it was viewed as a force play, not a “neighborhood play.”
Neighborhood plays, in which the second baseman or shortstop sweeps his foot in the area of second on a double-play attempt, are not reviewable. But because Murphy’s flip was slow developing and off-target, it was determined it was a force play.
Next, the MLB spokesperson said because the second base umpire was determined to have gotten the play wrong on the field via the review process, the umpires could place Utley where they think he should have been. Even if, just like Tejada, Utley never touched second base, either.
And lastly, the spokesperson acknowledged the illegal slide rule: If the umpires on the field had determined Utley’s slide to have been illegal, they have jurisdiction to call him out and also call the runner out at first base.
“That’s a judgment play,” said Torre, who sounded only slightly less confused than everybody else, adding: “They get…one shot to look at it. Especially with the fact that they’ve got to see if the guy touches the bag or touches the runner.
“So there are a lot of things they’re looking for. So obviously Chris Guccione didn’t think it was a violation. That’s a judgment.
“It saddens me, and I think everyone else, that Tejada gets hurt there…I’d hate to think Utley tried to hurt somebody. That concerns me…the lateness of the slide.”
You know who’s concerned far more than Torre, and that’s the Mets.
“Broke my shortstop’s leg, that’s all I know,” Mets manager Terry Collins said.
Asked whether it was a clean or dirty slide, Collins wouldn’t answer.
“I’m not going to get into it,” he said. “It’s over. It’s done. There’s not much we can do about it except come out in a couple of days and get after it.”
But know this: An incredibly similar play happened back in 2010, when Utley was with the Phillies. Against the Mets, Utley slid late and hard into second base trying to break up a double play and took out…Tejada. Yes.
So the Mets have had their fill, clearly, and you’d better believe when this series moves back to New York, Utley will be the biggest Public Enemy No. 1 in the postseason there since Pete Rose, who fought with Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson at second base during the 1973 NLCS.
“I was interested in why during the replay challenge, with both guys ending up missing second base, and Chase gets called safe,” Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson said. “That’s what I find most interesting.”
Said Dodgers starter Zack Greinke: “I’m sorry. I don’t really want to talk about it. I try to just not get involved in confrontation anymore.”
Utley ended up getting the job done, but only while enveloped in an enormous gray area, to say the least. And don’t tell the Mets this is anything but black and white.
“Depends on who you’re talking to,” Utley said. “There’s no intent to injure Ruben whatsoever.”
Maybe not. But the bottom line is: It was far more NFL Sunday tackle than MLB takeout slide. And now the Mets are down a shortstop, but the Dodgers have evened the series 1-1.
“We’re always told that if you’re going to break up a double play, you have to try to slide into second base,” Wright said. “Not start your slide after second base and end up way past the bag.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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