By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007
It was one of those nondescript games on one of those nondescript nights in May, in one of those nondescript road cities that all run together, and the Philadelphia Phillies were replacing one nondescript pitcher with another in what was well on its way to being another nondescript loss. As they stood beside the mound during the pitching change, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins turned to third baseman Abraham Nu¿ez and said, "Well, looks like this is going to be a rebuilding year for us."
"It was just a statement of fact," Rollins said yesterday afternoon, recalling the moment. "It was where we were at the time. It's just like: 'Maybe it's one of those years. Everybody's hurt.' You never quit. But sometimes you learn which battles you can probably win. Long story short, we came back and won that game. And I was like, well, I can't tell you what I said."
Rollins broke out into a wide grin, sitting at his locker in a clubhouse coming to life with arriving players, in a season that is improbably, amazingly alive. It is deep into September, and the Phillies arrived at RFK Stadium this weekend playing meaningful games.
Following a come-from-behind 7-6 victory over the Washington Nationals last night in the opener of a four-game series -- with Rollins bolstering his most valuable player credentials with a pair of doubles, the second of which drove in the go-ahead run with two outs in the top of the eighth inning -- the Phillies now trail the New York Mets, who lost last night, by only 1 1/2 games. Just eight days earlier, the deficit was seven. The Phillies also trail the San Diego Padres by 2 1/2 games in the wild-card race.
"He steals bases. He scores runs and he drives them in. And he plays defense like Ozzie Smith," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said of Rollins after the game, with one eye on a television set showing the Mets' game. "Why can't he be MVP?"
The funny thing about the "rebuilding year" story, Rollins points out, is that he really wasn't incorrect. The Phillies' season, full of April turmoil and May injuries, did wind up becoming a rebuilding season of sorts -- with eight rookies seeing meaningful action -- albeit one that apparently will go to the final week of the season with the team in contention.
"That night I thought, 'Maybe we just need to bring up our minor league system and see what they've got,' " Rollins said. "And that's what happened, truthfully. You look in our bullpen -- everybody's a Double-A or Triple-A pitcher. You look at our rotation. Half of them are Double-A, Triple-A pitchers."
Indeed, the Phillies are perhaps the most improbable contenders in baseball, sporting a team ERA (entering yesterday's game) of 4.83, which ranked 14th in the NL. In their bullpen, nine different Phillies pitchers have earned saves, including such non-household names as Yoel Hernandez, John Ennis, Mike Zagurski and Francisco Rosario -- plus one pitcher, Jose Mesa, who is a household name only because he has been pitching since the dawn of time.
On Opening Day, their top three starting pitchers -- Brett Myers, Freddy Garcia and Cole Hamels -- looked like a formidable October rotation, should the Phillies make it that far. Now, if they somehow get into the postseason, their top three would be Hamels, who is nursing a tender elbow that recently required a stay on the disabled list, and some combination of Kyle Lohse (who sports a 4.74 ERA after lasting only two innings last night), Jamie Moyer (5.01 ERA) and rookie Kyle Kendrick (4.05 ERA).
What the Phillies do have, however, is an awesome lineup that has scored 50 more runs this season than any other in the National League, and more than every American League team with the exception of the New York Yankees.
And even in a season in which Ryan Howard, the Phillies' massive first baseman and the reigning NL MVP, has 41 home runs, and second baseman Chase Utley has put up the kind of numbers that make stats-geeks drool, their biggest asset this year has been Rollins, the diminutive (5-foot-8), 28-year-old shortstop with the outsize personality and the game to match.
Rollins's 357 total bases this season are three more than Alex Rodriguez has, and his 130 runs scored and 18 triples both lead the league. Two more homers, to go along with his 37 steals, would give him the first 30-30 season of his career.
"He's our MVP," Howard said. "With everything that's happened this year, all the injuries -- to myself, to Chase, the pitching staff -- Jimmy's been that one constant. And in the second half, he's just kind of taken over."
In the climactic games of the Phillies' season, seven head-to-head meetings against the division-leading Mets in late August and last weekend, Rollins went 13 for 34 (.382) with a pair of homers and six steals -- as the Phillies swept all seven games -- silencing, for now, Mets fans who have given him grief since he proclaimed the Phillies "the team to beat" over the winter.
"From the beginning of the season until now, [the heckling from Mets fans] has gotten less and less and less," Rollins said. "Had they beat us, and if I wasn't able to perform the way I did, they would have killed me up there. But I was able to walk on that stage and perform. And we were able to win, and win convincingly. And I think we gained a lot of respect in those games."
Howard recalled hearing Mets fans berate Rollins as the Phillies stretched prior to one of the games in New York last weekend. "The fans were all over him," he said. " 'Hey, Jimmy, who's the team to beat now?' We were behind by six or seven games at the time. And now we're in the mix. We definitely want to get to the playoffs and prove everybody wrong."
The Phillies trailed by four runs for much of the game. But at shortstop, Rollins paced and fidgeted and glanced occasionally at the out-of-town scoreboard, awaiting his chance, the strangest rebuilding season of all-time still gloriously alive.