For the better part of 12 seasons, spanning the course of 1,194 games, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins formed the best double play tandem in MLB and one of the best all-time in baseball history.
It all began on April 4th, the day a 24-year-old Utley made his major league debut. Utley had spent the prior season with the Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons and after a successful year in the minors, was ready for his promotion. His first taste of the bigs came as he subbed in for Placido Polanco. He received just one at-bat that game and didn’t return to the Phillies until April 24th.
It was on that day that Utley recorded his first major league hit, a grand slam, and it was also that day that he was involved in his first double play, ironically enough, not with Rollins.
However just one day later, in the midst of just their second game together as starters in the infield, Rollins and Utley recorded their first of many 4-6-3 double plays.
It was the fifth inning and Vicente Padilla was on the mound for the Phillies. At the plate for the San Francisco Giants, second baseman Ray Durham.
Durham, the lead-off hitter, had been 1-2 on the night and had scored a run in the third inning off of a Barry Bonds double. With one out and one on and a favorable 2-0 count, Durham hit the ball up the middle and right to Utley, who then tossed it to Rollins covering second, who finished the play by going to Jim Thome at first for the third and final out of the inning.
4-6-3. Utley to Rollins to Thome.
Two years later, Polanco was traded to make way for Utley to take over the second base duties full-time and so was Thome, to open the doors for the debut of top prospect Ryan Howard. While this meant the third member of the double play team had changed, nothing was different for Utley and Rollins.
By the time Thome and Polanco were gone, Utley and Rollins had already developed an incredible rapport. In fact, according to complex.com’s 2014 list, ‘The Greatest Double-Play Duos in MLB History’ (of which Utley and Rollins rank third), it was in 2005, coinciding with Utley’s offensive surge, that the two truly began to make their mark as one of the best. A year later, SI.com ranked them as the third best combo in baseball among active players.
“I think we’ll be around long enough to develop a special relationship out there.”
Rollins and Utley were constants in the middle of the infield and the order. Utley recorded a five-year stretch in which he never had an OBP below .376 and saw his power explode as well with at least 22 home runs per season in that span. Rollins won the 2007 NL MVP, assuming what could have been Utley’s trophy if not for a broken hand suffered earlier that year. Rollins also stole at least 31 bases in each of those five years and joined the most exclusive club in all of baseball, becoming just one of four players to have at least 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a single season.
And all the while, these two were occupying second and short, playing top notch defense and allowing fans to hear, on no shortage of occasion, “That ball’s hard hit, up the middle, Utley to Rollins to Howard, 4-6-3 double play.” or “Rollins has it, flips to Utley for the out at second, he tosses to Howard, 6-4-3 double play.”
Over and over and over again.
On September 6th, 2014 against the Washington Nationals, the third to last game the pair played together, Wilson Ramos stepped to the plate with Jonathan Papelbon on the mound. There was one out, bottom of the 9th, and the Phillies were up by two. Ian Desmond was on first.
Ramos swung at the first pitch, making contact and sending the ball up the middle. Rollins to Utley to Howard. 6-4-3 double play.
Rollins played just two more games that season and was traded a few months later in December to the Los Angeles Dodgers. It seemed that this was the last double play we would ever see from the duo who played together longer than all but one middle infield tandem, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker of the Detroit Tigers.
“I think when you do it year after year the way Jimmy and Chase have, they know each other like the back of their hand. They move together. They communicate. And the fact that both are so good instinctively in the middle of the diamond in those two positions goes a long way…”
But the baseball gods seemed to have other plans and on August 19, 2015, the Phillies agreed in principle to trade Utley to those very same Dodgers.
Despite it not being in Philadelphia, reuniting the duo is truly something special. There is no doubt anyone who tuned in to see the Phillies over the last 12 years will smile if or rather when, Utley and Rollins enjoy their iconic pre-game handshake.
And when those two are on the field and that first ball is hard hit, up the middle, to the left of Rollins or the right of Utley, well, let’s just say it will indeed be a magical moment, even if Dodger fans can’t fully appreciate it.
One can only hope that moment happens at Citizen’s Bank Park because Philly will appreciate it. They’ll appreciate it a lot.