At some point during the intelligent design of Chase Utley, it must have been decided that this particular lifeform would be fueled by pure vitriol. For 14 years as a visitor here, he has thrived on it, using it to embrace his role as the perfect villain.
On Saturday night, he endured abuse in the form of lusty boos from Mets fans with long memories. He heard the hiss of a 99-mph fastball of questionable intent that sailed behind his back. He stood quietly as Noah Syndergaard and Terry Collins earned ejections for the crime of frontier justice.
Yet this wasn’t enough for Utley. No, in the Mets’ 9-1 loss to the Dodgers, he had to make something painfully diabolical out of all the hate that flowed toward him. So shortly after the theatrics, he exacted his own revenge, hitting a solo homer and a grand slam that left a sellout crowd of 42,227 in a state of stunned submission.
They had gathered here for a celebration, only to be held captive for a wake.
Before the Mets’ revenge went so wrong, Citi Field buzzed with excitement. First, it was with nostalgia for a pregame ceremony to honor the 30th anniversary of the fabled 1986 team and its World Series triumph. Then it was for the thought of revenge, when Syndergaard seemed to heed the protests of fans who had seethed with every game that passed without retribution.
The window appeared to have passed. It has been seven months since Utley’s takeout slide in Game 2 of the NLDS left Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with a broken leg.
Since then, the world has changed. Baseball instituted controversial rules to ban such slides. The clubs already had met five times this season without incident. And Tejada had long moved on. He was released by the Mets in spring training, signed with the Cardinals, and then was designated for assignment earlier yesterday.
The Mets, however, did not forget.
Syndergaard, the 6-6, 240-pound powerhouse, showed during last year’s World Series that he is not beyond intimidation. It was his fastball over the head of Alcides Escobar in Game 3 of the World Series that injected some spice into the Fall Classic.
Syndergaard again seemed comfortable making himself into a lightning rod. With one out in the third inning of a scoreless game, the brash righthander fired a first-pitch fastball a foot behind Utley.
Syndergaard nonchalantly raised his glove for the return throw and Utley looked down and dug in his spikes. It was as if both were simply going through a customary ritual.
Plate umpire Adam Hamari had not issued warnings. Nevertheless, he immediately tossed Syndergaard, which drew the ire of Collins.
Red-faced and exasperated, Collins charged from the dugout and stood nearly chest-to-chest with Hamari, who eventually heard enough and tossed the manager as well. Still, Collins fumed, engaging in a long exchange with crew chief Tom Hallion before finally retreating to the clubhouse.
The stands erupted with jeers. Suddenly, the comforting blanket of nostalgia had been replaced by the an uneasy dose of testosterone. But for all of the fireworks, the Mets had sabotaged themselves. Syndergaard was finished after 2 1⁄3 innings and 34 pitches. He had lit up the radar gun at 100 mph, and his replacements could not match that firepower. Utley and the Dodgers pounced for five home runs.
The rout began in the sixth, when Utley changed the tenor of what had been a scoreless duel. His solo shot off Logan Verrett came ahead of a Yasiel Puig’s run-scoring single.
As if to prove that he has been hard-wired to exert pain, Utley turned the screws even more in the seventh inning. With the bases loaded, he stepped to the plate awash in more boos. A moment later, he returned after rounding the bases on his grand slam.
Utley quietly high-fived his waiting teammates, a fitting celebration that understated the fury that fueled him.