This Chase is On!

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“I don’t think I have impressive power. I think the guy next to me at first base has impressive power. My whole goal every year is to improve. Get stronger, quicker, and become a better player. Occasionally, I sneak a homer out of the park.”
— Chase Utley, in an interview with Men’s Fitness, Spring 2008.

He lied! Chase Utley pulled one over on us at Men’s Fitness magazine after learning we’d named him one of the 25 Fittest Guys in America.

The Phillies second baseman went all humble, aw-shucks on us, dragging out the old “I’m just trying to improve” line before hitting us with the doozy: Occasionally, I sneak a homer out of the park.

Occasionally. How about six times in seven games?! That’s Utley’s dinger-rate going into tonight’s homestand opener against Cincinnati. He’s got a major-league leading 20 for the season, which puts him on pace to pass the average number of home runs he’s hit over his three major-league seasons (27) by, oh, next weekend.

Occasionally, my eye.

Utley’s power and production — he’s tied for second in the majors with 50 RBIs — not-so-coincidentally coincides with the Phillies surging atop the NL East on Sunday, just ahead of the suddenly cooled Marlins. They’re also the primary reason the early money’s on to him succeed teammate Jimmy Rollins (who succeeded teammate Ryan Howard) as the National League MVP.

The 29-year-old two-time All-Star is also hitting solidly above .300 (.312, as of Monday).

Utley’s numbers are not wholly surprising. He’s been an RBI machine since his UCLA days (where he averaged almost one a game), and has amassed 100+ each MLB season.

Now while chicks — and baseball writers — love the long ball, Utley’s stature as the MVP frontrunner should largely be credited to his improved glove. Sandwiched between first baseman Howard and shortstop Rollins, Utley has vastly improved in what was the weakest part of his game: defense. “He’s shut the critics up,” says Rollins.

In many ways, Utley is another right-guy-at-the-right time. Like his immediate MVP predecessor, he appears to epitomize the game’s highest attributes. At 6-1 and about 200 pounds, he’s not overly jacked for a guy jacking HRs out of the neighborhood, which makes him more identifiable to the average fan.

Moreover, he’s embraced a charity beyond reproach: Puppies!

Well, all animals, to be truthful. He and his wife, Jen, are major benefactors of the Pennsylvania SPCA, which came to their attention last year when Jen discovered a badly abused boxer named Etana and offered the pay its medical bills.

The couple would have adopted Etana, but with two cats already at home, it would have been a combustible mix.

Last week, the couple raised $200,000 at the first annual Utley All-Star Animals event at a Philadelphia gallery. Utley was joined by several of his Phillies teammates, many of whom have animals themselves.

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