David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
LOS ANGELES - Describing Chase Utley as a Mets-killer all these years was never meant to be taken literally. Until Saturday night in NLDS Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, that is, when Utley did the only thing he's seemingly capable of doing anymore on a baseball field: destroying a smaller, defenseless infielder with the viciousness of a middle linebacker, as he did to Ruben Tejada.
There's enough people ready to say what happened in that car wreck of a collision was within the rules, to hail Utley as a throwback type, adhering to a survival-of-the-fittest code on the basepaths. And we can't deny that Utley single-handedly reversed the momentum of this Division Series. He did. By keeping that Wild West of a seventh inning alive, Utley allowed the Dodgers to not only tie the score at 2 but score three more runs en route to a 5-2 victory.
Just don't tell us it was a clean play, because it wasn't.
Straying an arm's-length away from the bag, in either direction, to prevent an infielder from completing a relay throw is perfectly effective. Even popping up underneath him as a runner slides through the base.
But barreling into a player's lower half at full speed, barely scraping the dirt first -- or even faking an attempt to tap the base with a fingertip?
Lawrence Taylor was easier on quarterbacks than what Utley did to Tejada, and now the unlikely pair have something in common. They both snapped an opponent's leg in two.
Tejada wound up with a fractured right fibula and was driven away on the back of a flatbed golf cart, his season over.
It's the defender's job to avoid the contact and finish the play. We get that. But how could anyone watch what happened in that collision -- and yes, we've watched it many, many times -- and say in all seriousness that it was a clean play? You can't.
Joe Torre has been involved with MLB since 1960 as a player, a manager, a broadcaster and now as Chief Baseball Officer. He's forgotten more about the game between the lines than we'll ever know, and in the Utley-Tejada aftermath, Torre took to the podium at Dodger Stadium and offered his interpretation.
"I'd hate to think that Utley tried to hurt somebody," Torre said. "It certainly was late. That concerns me. The lateness of the slide."
Once Torre starts making comments like that, you can assume the play is now under review for possible disciplinary action against Utley. And if he ends up being punished, there's no more debate.
Until that ruling, however, all we have is a steaming Mets clubhouse on one side, lamenting the shattering loss of their shortstop, and the Dodgers sticking up for their player on the other.
As expected, the lines were clearly drawn in the Tejada fallout, and Mets captain David Wright appeared to be holding back to some degree.
"You're going to have to ask Chase what his intent was," Wright said. "Ruben had his back turned to him, so obviously he can't protect himself. So only Chase knows what his intent was."
Utley's response was predictable.
"I think you're taught from a young age to try to break up double plays," Utley said. "I think that's winning baseball."
There is a distinction, however, between breaking up double plays and breaking opposing players in half.
It's not as if this is the first time with Utley and the Mets, either. Back in 2010 at Citizens Bank Park, Utley crushed Tejada with a late slide, but that was far more tame than the open-field tackle he delivered Saturday night. This time Tejada didn't walk away.
Lying on the ground, Tejada told trainer Ray Ramirez he couldn't feel his right foot. Immediately, Ramirez knew it had to be a fracture and called for the cart.
The usually excitable Terry Collins kept his composure during his postgame news conference, but inside, the manager had to be boiling.
"It broke my shortstop's leg, that's all I know," Collins said.
When pressed on whether it was clean, Collins said, "I'm not going to get into it. It's over. It's done. Not much we can do about it except come out in a couple days and get after it."
We figure Collins meant win Game 3, but based on the mood in the Mets' clubhouse, this has to go beyond that.
Remember, Matt Harvey is on the mound for the pivotal swing game of the series at Citi Field, but there is more on the table now. If Utley is going to KO the Mets' shortstop, we'd expect Harvey to establish the inside corner of the plate early. Maybe with the Dodgers' own young shortstop, the promising Corey Seager. And don't be surprised if he misses inside -- by a lot.
The Mets' ultimate goal is to win two more games and advance to the NLCS. That hasn't changed. But Utley started this, and it's not about some testosterone-fueled beanball exchange. This felt personal, and unnecessary, and brutal.
From what we heard late Saturday night, it sounds as if the Mets are just playing this one close publicly until Harvey gets the baseball in his right hand Monday night.
"We'll control it, but yeah, they're angry," Collins said.
The Mets should be. They should be furious.