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The Chase is on

With Chipper Jones’ career nearing the end, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley seems poised to carry the mantle of being the player whom Mets fans fear facing the most.

Remember two weeks ago, we told you about the exclusive statistical club to which Albert Pujols’ 2009 season belonged.

Utley has an impressive club in which he's a member, too.

Utley hit .333 with seven home runs against the Mets last season. Nineteen times, a player has posted those kinds of numbers against the Mets in a single season, but only four have done so since 1981- Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg (1990 Cubs), Jones (1999 Braves), Pat Burrell (2002 Phillies), and Utley.

Other names on the list include the likes of Willie Mays (three times), Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, and Hank Aaron.

Utley ranks right behind Pujols in terms of impressive performance, but keep in mind that the Mets see him twice as often as they see the Cardinals slugger. Pujols and Utley share another common thread as well. Since 2006, it’s Utley (and not teammate Ryan Howard), who ranks second to Pujols in the trendy new stat, Wins Above Replacement (abbreviated WAR), which attempts to provide a statistical answer to the question: “Who is the most valuable player in baseball?”

Though the Mets have had their share of success against Utley in the past, he’s raised his game against them in certain aspects, particularly with his home run hitting capability. Utley has 23 career home runs against the Mets (his most against any opponent), averaging one every 16 at-bats. Against the rest of baseball, he homers once every 21 at-bats.

The right field corner at Citi Field was christened “Utley’s Corner” by Mets announcers last season after Utley poked a couple of home runs just barely over the right field fence.

For a while, Mets left-handers gave Utley trouble and that would seem to be an effective weapon heading into this weekend's series in which Jonathon Niese and Johan Santana are starting.

Not anymore.

Utley was 8-for-21 against Mets lefties in 2009 (.381 batting average), including six hits in his last seven at-bats. Most notably, he homered in each of Santana’s last two starts against the Phillies and reached base in his last four plate appearances against Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano. Utley had one stretch in his career in which Santana retired him 16 of 17 times, and he was just 4-for-23 against Feliciano entering 2009. But he seems to have figured them out.

We asked, Mike Trainor, our Stats and Analysis rep for Baseball Tonight to put together a quasi-scouting report for Utley’s performance against Mets southpaws, based on the video review data provided by Inside Edge. He came up with these three bullet points. Keep an eye on them as you watch how the Mets approach Utley this weekend.

Since the start of 2009, Utley is only 16-75 (.213) against lefties on at-bats that end with pitches down in the zone (ie: knee-high). In all other locales, he is 50-158 (.316).

Mets lefties attacked Utley down and away last season. Of the 99 pitches he saw, 31 were in that zone. It didn't really faze Utley, who didn’t chase what he didn’t like: He was 1-for-2 with a homer and four walks on pitches down and away.

Of Utley's eight hits last season vs. Mets lefties, he collected one each in eight different zones (ie: up-and-in, down-and-away, down-the-middle). The only zone he didn’t have a hit was on pitches classified as"down and in.”