From the Very Start, Rollins Finishes off Dodgers

Mark KriegelCorrespondent IOctober 16, 2008

On the night before a big game, Jimmy Rollins typically finds himself afflicted with a mild form of insomnia. If the Phillies are on the road, the National League's reigning MVP assumes his batting stance in front of the mirror in his hotel room, taking practice cuts while trying to figure how the opposing starter will pitch to him.

"Thinking how I'm going to get it started," he said.

As the leadoff hitter he considers this to be his particular responsibility, getting the team started. But Rollins isn't merely concerned with individual games. The Phillies, as he is often reminded, had been down for years when he arrived in the big leagues. They won 65 games and drew 1.6 million fans in 2000, the year Rollins made his major league debut.

"I wanted to see if I could help change that," he said Wednesday night, brandishing a bottle of Moet.

Rollins will also tell you that this team — in many ways, his team — isn't satisfied with beating the Dodgers for the National League pennant. "We have four more to win," he said.

They may not do that. But the transformation of the Phillies — their metamorphosis from chumps to champs — is nearly complete. You hear all this talk about teams changing their culture. Well, it was Rollins who got that started for Philly. He'll tell you when, too.

"It started last year," he said. "I answered the question as honestly as I could."

He was referring to his words of January 8, 2007. The genesis of the new Phillies was a prediction. "The Mets had a chance to win the World Series last year," he said. "Last year is over. I think we are the team to beat in the NL East."

Rollins got some grief for that. In fact, despite an MVP year, by the last month of the regular season, he seemed less a seer than a fool. On September 12, the Phillies were down seven games to the Mets with 17 to play. They won the division.

"This year was different," he said. "This year, we came in believing."

Still, it was more of the same. On September 10, the Phillies found themselves 3½ games behind the Mets, who now had the benefit of Johan Santana. This time, the Phillies won the division by three games.

Now, in mid-October, in a cramped clubhouse made unbearably humid with champagne mist, those seem distant memories. After beating the Brewers and the Dodgers, these Phillies have proven themselves more than winners. They've proven they don't need the dog-ass Mets to be their foils.

Not that that's a reason to get too giddy. "Four more games," said Rollins. "We still got work to do."

This hasn't been a great year for the shortstop. For the first time in his career, Rollins went on the disabled list. It was back in April when a sprained ankle forced him to miss 25 games.

"The first ten days weren't that bad," he said.

The rest of his stint was terrible, though: "I must've missed, what, three, four hundred pitches."

In 2007, Rollins set a record with 716 at bats. Going into 2008, he never had a full season with fewer than 628 at bats. This year, he had a mere 556. And though he stole 47 bases, he only hit .277, down 21 points from 2007. The playoffs haven't been good to him, either.

Going into Wednesday night's game, he was hitting .242, with a single run batted in, a leadoff homer that got the Division Series started. In four games against the Dodgers, he was 3 for 21, .143.

Still, Jimmy Rollins epitomizes what's best about the Phillies. They can get by without a great night from their MVP. They can endure a Ryan Howard slump. They're an ensemble.

Of course, it helps when you have Cole Hamels on the mound. The Dodgers had no answer for Hamels Wednesday. That said, the Phillies needed a start.

"These pitchers," said Rollins, "I've been letting them get away with a bunch of stuff."

He had rehearsed the night before in front of the mirror. The postseason pitchers have been starting him off with slow stuff, then busting him inside with a two-seam fastball.

As he arrived in the batter's box — the first to hit on Wednesday night — he had a good idea what was coming. Chad Billingsley was ahead 0-2 when Rollins stepped out of the batter's box.

"I knew if I could just get it to 3-2, I'd get a fastball I could hit," he said.

That's what he got, a high 93 mph fastball. And that's what he hit, 390 feet over the right field fence.

The Dodgers never put up much of a fight after that. You can only get so far on Tommy Lasorda's towel waving antics, and replays of Kirk Gibson's home run.

Jimmy Rollins had done his job. He got it started. He got it finished, too.

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