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 PHILADELPHIA (AP) -How's this for pressure? Tell everyone months before the season the team to beat in the division is one that hasn't made the playoffs in 14 years.
Jimmy Rollins lived with the weight of those words for 251 days. The little guy with the big smile and confident swagger finally let out a sigh of relief on the last day of the regular season.
The Philadelphia Phillies are the NL East champions for the first time since 1993. No way the Fightin's could have done it without J-Roll.
``That was a heavy burden to carry all year long,'' Rollins said of the bold prediction he first made on Jan. 23. ``I'm glad it's off my shoulders.''
Motivated by his promise, Rollins put together the best season of his seven-year career.
The switch-hitting leadoff man finished with a .296 batting average, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers, 41 steals, 94 RBIs and scored an NL-best 139 runs. He became the first player in major league history to have 30 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers and 30 steals in one season - one of many accomplishments.
No shortstop in the NL ever had more extra-bases hits (88) and only Alex Rodriguez had more (91) in 1996 with Seattle. And, while it seemed everyone around him was getting hurt, the durable Rollins played every game, becoming the first NL shortstop in 34 years to do so.
So, does he deserve to be the NL MVP?
``I think so,'' said Ryan Howard, who won the award last year. ``With everything he's done for us, with all the injuries that keep coming up, he's been the one constant. He's been so much for this team. He stepped up in the second half and he played the leadership role getting us to where we are.''
For those who think Rollins' numbers are enhanced because he plays at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, consider he had more runs, hits and doubles on the road and an equal amount of RBIs away from home.
Not bad for someone who stands only 5-foot-7 without spikes and weighs 170 pounds.
``What more can he do except sell tickets and popcorn?'' manager Charlie Manuel said.
When Rollins proclaimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the East during one of the team's winter caravan stops, he based it on improved pitching. General manager Pat Gillick had acquired two-time All-Star Freddy Garcia and signed Adam Eaton to strengthen a starting rotation that was considered one of the deepest in the league at the time.
Both acquisitions proved to be busts. Garcia won one game before needing season-ending shoulder surgery, and Eaton posted a 6.29 ERA in 30 starts. The normally dependable Jon Lieber also went down for the season in June, and closers Brett Myers and Tom Gordon each spent two months on the disabled list.
Injuries ravaged the entire roster, taking Howard, All-Star Chase Utley, and right fielder Shane Victorino out of the lineup for extended periods.
Through it all, Rollins held the league's highest-scoring offense together. Aaron Rowand chipped in with a career year and Pat Burrell's remarkable second-half resurgence also helped.
The Phillies were 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 2 and were under .500 by a game as late as July 19. They cut New York's lead to two games with a four-game sweep over the Mets in Philly on Aug. 27-30, but fell to seven games out with 17 remaining on Sept. 12.
A three-game sweep at Shea Stadium put the Phillies back in the race and they finished 13-4 while the Mets went 5-12 to complete a monumental collapse.
Booed lustily in New York all season, Rollins reveled in the spotlight. He hit .346 with six homers and 15 RBIs against the Mets, helping the Phillies take 12 of 18 from their rival, including the last eight.
No matter how bleak it looked at times, Rollins never backed off his preseason statement. With the team on the verge, he made the guarantee one more time.
Before the Phillies beat Washington 6-1 to clinch the division Sunday, there was the usual video tribute on the scoreboard on Fan Appreciation Day. Players thanked everyone for coming out and finished by saying, ``We'll see you here next year.''
When it was Rollins' turn, he said: ``We'll see you here next week.''
He was only slightly wrong because the faithful don't have to wait that long for another home game. The Phillies will host Game 1 of the first round Wednesday against the winner of Monday's wild-card tiebreaker between San Diego and Colorado.
``There were times we had to win in the past and we came up short,'' Rollins said. ``Now we did it. We're in.''
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