|Jimmy Rollins might be small, but his big swing has kept Phillies in playoff hunt|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 13 September 2007 13:15|
For years, Jimmy Rollins heard the same criticism from people who said he's not a prototypical leadoff hitter. Try dissing J-Roll now.
The three-time All-Star shortstop is having an MVP-caliber season in Philadelphia, helping the injury-depleted Phillies stay in the playoff race.
Rollins was hitting .294 with 27 homers and 82 RBIs going into Thursday's game against Colorado. He had 35 doubles, 17 triples, 31 steals and 125 runs scored. No player in major league history has ever had 40 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers and 30 steals in one season. Rollins has a legitimate chance to accomplish that remarkable feat, and he could end up leading the NL in total bases.
``When I look at the numbers, they don't really register,'' Rollins said. ``I look at them and I say, 'OK, I'm doing good.' But that's all I think because winning games is all that matters.''
Considering Rollins is only 5-foot-7 (he's listed an inch taller, but said that's with spikes) and weighs 170 pounds, his power numbers are even more impressive. Carlos Delgado, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones are among the sluggers just in the same division with fewer homers.
If baseball players were judged like boxers, Rollins would have to be the best pound-for-pound major leaguer.
``He's stronger than you think he is for a little guy,'' manager Charlie Manuel said. ``He has a short, compact swing, he catches the ball out front and he explodes on the ball. Kirby Puckett used to do that.''
On a team that includes reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard and All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, Rollins might be the most indispensable player. If the Phillies could find a way to replace the switch-hitting Rollins atop the lineup, they'd still miss his flawless fielding.
When Howard missed two weeks with a leg injury in May, the Phillies went 8-4. After Utley broke his hand in late July, they were 15-13. It's difficult to imagine Philly could be successful without Rollins jump-starting the offense and anchoring the defense.
The 28-year-old is also a team leader. He swaggers through the clubhouse, flashing a trademark smile, joking, chirping and keeping everyone loose. If a players-only meeting is needed, Rollins usually is the one to call it.
``His value is hard to explain,'' Manuel said. ``He's been that good for us. He's a huge part of our team. He plays every day and that takes a special player. He has all the credentials to be the MVP. The position he plays and the way he plays it is very important. Everything filters around him. He's the guy that sets our offense and he's the guy that sparks our defense.''
When critics harped on his low on-base percentage or his propensity for flying out and not working the count, Rollins kept the same approach at the plate. He's not a slap hitter, so he doesn't try to poke a single through a hole.
Over the last three seasons, Rollins was batting .338 when swinging at the first pitch - an unwritten no-no for leadoff guys.
``With the criticism, you have to be able to not get too high or too low,'' Rollins said. ``That comes from my parents keeping me levelheaded. It never bothered me. It's fine. Go look at the numbers.''
Manuel batted Rollins third when Howard and Utley were out of the lineup and he's tempted to put him in the middle of the lineup because of his run-producing ability. But Rollins thrives in the leadoff spot. All his homers this season have come when he's batted first.
``They say a leadoff hitter hits singles, but I've never grown up that way from the first time my dad threw me balls,'' Rollins said. ``Playing any sport, he told me: 'You don't want to be weak. If you're small, that's fine. But you want to be strong. No matter what you do, you have to be strong.' I never went up there trying to hit singles. I always went up there trying to hit the ball hard and hope it's not at somebody.''
How strong is the toned Rollins? He sometimes uses Howard's bat, which is three inches longer and two ounces heavier than his own. Howard, by the way, is 6-4, 252. But Rollins will use the bigger lumber against certain sinkerball right-handers.
While he's dangerous at the plate, Rollins might be even better with his glove. He's such a slick fielder and makes all the routine plays that he gets overlooked by flashier guys who end up on the highlight reels.
``Underappreciated? Definitely, but the guys on this team they appreciate it,'' said Rollins, who hasn't won a Gold Glove. ``Sometimes I make the spectacular plays, but it looks routine so it doesn't get on the highlights.''
Rollins credits the late John Vukovich for his superb fielding. Vukovich, who died in March, was a longtime coach with the Phillies.
``Vuke always told me to make the routine play routine,'' Rollins said. ``He beat it in my head. Before that, I was all about showtime.''
Though he earned recognition by making the All-Star team in 2001-02 and 2005, Rollins didn't get much national exposure until he finished the '05 season with a 36-game hitting streak that eventually reached 38.
Early in his career, Rollins was overshadowed by big-name shortstops like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada. Now he's in the same division with Jose Reyes (Mets), Hanley Ramirez (Marlins) and Edgar Renteria (Braves). There's also J.J. Hardy (Brewers) and Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies) in the NL.
Reyes was voted to the All-Star game this year and Hardy went as the backup. Rollins, Ramirez and Renteria deserved to go, too.
``I don't use things like that as motivation,'' Rollins said. ``Seeing Ryan Howard win the MVP, with him being so close to me, that's what's motivated me. I don't know if I can get there, but I can try.''
Rollins has never lacked confidence in his skills or his team. He created a stir in the offseason when he boldly proclaimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East.
At the time, many observers agreed with Rollins. The Phillies had acquired two-time All-Star Freddy Garcia to lead a strong rotation that had six quality starters. After falling short of a wild-card berth in the final weekend the last two seasons, it seemed Philadelphia finally had the pitching to get over the top.
But injuries decimated the staff. Only 44-year-old Jamie Moyer hasn't been on the disabled list. Besides Howard and Utley, closer Tom Gordon, converted closer Brett Myers, reliever Ryan Madson and outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn also missed significant time with injuries.
Somehow the Phillies were only 2 1/2 games behind wild card-leading San Diego with 17 remaining.
``Any team I play on, I believe has a chance to win,'' Rollins said. ``To win a ring, that would mean everything. To get to the playoffs, it would be finally - we finally are able to cross that line and get to where I feel we deserve to be. The teams that get tested through the fire, I think deserve to be there.''
If the Phillies make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, Rollins might be the smallest MVP since Hall of Famer Joe Morgan won it 21 years ago.