One of the most popular players in Philadelphia Phillies franchise history made his first big league start on April 24th, 2003 a memorable one.
On that Thursday afternoon in a 3:05pm Businessperson’s Special at Veteran’s Stadium, a crowd of just 16,947 assembled to watch manager Larry Bowa‘s first place squad host the Colorado Rockies.
Few of them knew the significance of what they were about to see. Even the most enthusiastic among those who did know the occasion would have had a hard time realizing what was actually about to begin on that afternoon.
Bowa made out his lineup, and in the 8th spot in his batting order the skipper filled in the name of Chase Utley at 2nd base. Utley was a 24-year old who had been the club’s 1st round pick at 15th overall in the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft out of UCLA. This would be his first big league start.
It was not Utley’s first appearance in a big league box score. That event had taken place back on April 4th, in the club’s home opener, a 9-1 blowout loss courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Utley had been called in that day as a pinch-hitter for starting pitcher Joe Roa, who had been bombed for six earned runs over two innings. In that first-ever plate appearance, Utley unceremoniously struck out swinging against Jeff Suppan.
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Utley was quickly returned to the minor leagues to get more playing time. He was pretty much ready for a big league opportunity, but was blocked by a pair of veterans in 2nd baseman Placido Polanco and 3rd baseman David Bell, who were flanking young shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
But in mid-April, Polanco suffered an injury. The Phils made due with stopgap performances from Tomas Perez and Nick Punto for a bit, but finally decided to call Utley up for his first starting opportunity. He would make the most of it, leaving a lasting impression on that Friday afternoon.
Bowa’s full lineup that afternoon had Rollins in the leadoff spot at short. Rickey Ledee was batting 2nd and playing center field. The right fielder, Bobby Abreu, was batting in the third spot, with left fielder Pat Burrell at cleanup. Batting fifth was 1st baseman Jim Thome. Catcher Mike Lieberthal batted in the 6th spot, Bell hit 7th at 3rd base, and then Utley, who was followed by starting pitcher Randy Wolf.
Wolf was destined for a gem on the day. He would go 7.2 innings, shutting down the Rockies on four hits and one run while striking out eight batters before giving way to reliever Rheal Cormier, who closed out an easy 9-1 win.
In the bottom of the 1st inning, the Phils gave Wolf a 2-0 lead on a pair of unearned runs. When Utley came to bat in the bottom of the 2nd, he flew out easily to left field against Rockies’ starter Aaron Cook, beginning his day in uneventful fashion. It wouldn’t stay that way.
The very next inning, with the Phillies still holding that 2-0 lead, the team loaded the bases. With one out, Burrell grounded a clean single to center, and Thome walked. Then with two outs, Bell beat out a slow roller at the 2nd baseman. That brought Utley to the plate for a 2nd straight inning.
What happened next is ingrained in the minds of most Phillies fans of the last decade. If you didn’t get to experience the moment, click into the below video, and join in with legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas for the call:
As you may already know and/or just enjoyed, Utley drove his first big league hit over the wall at The Vet for a grand slam. The blast gave the Phillies and Wolf a dominating 6-0 lead in the game, and made a Jay Payton solo blast off Wolf easier to take. Burrell’s own solo blast in the bottom of the 5th made it 7-1, and that was the lead the Phils would take into the home 8th.
In that bottom of the 8th, Utley led off, flicking his wrists at an offering from reliever Jose Jimenez, driving the ball into the left center gap for a double. One batter later, Utley would score on a double by Rollins, who would become his double play partner in the middle of the Phillies infield for the next decade.
Five years, a new ballpark, and a ton of teammates later, Utley, Rollins, and Burrell would be together for one last time as the Phillies finally won the franchise’ 2nd World Series on a brisk October night at Citizens Bank Park. And it all began on that sun-splashed April afternoon in 2003 at The Vet.