Saturday, September 27, 2008

JRollin' Into the Playoffs

The 2007 National League Most Valuable Player had certainly not played up to that standard during the 2008 campaign. Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies multi-talented shortstop and that '07 MVP struggled with the bat through the majority of the first five months of the season. His numbers were nowhere near those of that magical season which he fashioned just a year ago. In 2007, Rollins led the Phils to their first division championship in 14 years with his .296 batting average, 30 homeruns, 94 rbi, 139 runs, 41 steals. This came on the heels of a 2006 year in which he had 25 homers, 83 rbi, 127 runs and 36 steals, and seemed to signal a progression that placed the player known as 'JRoll' among the elite at his position. At age 29, he seemed a regular strength that the Phils would be able to count on for at least the next few years. Instead, he pretty much crashed and burned statistically and production-wise in 2008, in which he would finish with just 11 homers, 59 rbi, and 76 runs scored, numbers that are completely unacceptable as the leadoff man in one of the most offensively solid lineups in baseball, playing his home games in a hitters paradise, and coming off an MVP year. But one thing that Jimmy Rollins never, ever let happen was that he did not take those offensive struggles out to the field with him. When JRoll took up his position at shortstop for the Phillies, he was again that Gold Glove Award winner. His range into the hole and up the middle, his mastery at turning the doubleplay with keystone partner Chase Utley, that rocket arm, his athleticism in going back on balls into the outfield or over by the 3rd base line, all of this remained. Jimmy Rollins bat might not have been much this season, but his defense at shortstop was a key reason that the Phillies went into this weekend in control of their own destiny, trying to clinch a 2nd straight division title. On Saturday afternoon it would all come together with a highlight reel play that will stand forever in the minds of the fans who witnessed it, either in person or on television. The Phils had a 4-2 lead and handed the ball to closer Brad Lidge for the 9th inning. Lidge was a perfect 40 for 40 in Save opportunities, and the Phils' NL East title seemed all but assured as he struck out the leadoff batter. But then things got hairy as a walk and a couple of dink hits allowed the Washington Nationals to creep within 4-3, with the bases loaded and just one out. An inning earlier the Nats had challenged again, cutting a 3-1 Phils lead down to 3-2, but Rollins had helped put out the fire with a sensational ranging play into No-Man's Land in centerfield. But he saved his best for this 9th inning drama. The Nats talented young leader, 3rd baseman Ryan Zimmerman, stepped in with those bases loaded, the tying run just 90 feet away with just one out. That close to Lidge losing his season-long perfection. Zimmerman got a pitch he liked and drilled a ground ball back up the middle that appeared for a second that it would roll into centerfield for a 2-run hit and a Nationals lead. But suddenly there was the speedy JRoll, slide-diving to snare the seeing-eye grounder. In the same motion that he speared the ball, he fed it to Utley at 2nd. Chase took the perfect feed for one out, turned, and fired a laser to 1st baseman Ryan Howard that beat the hustling Zimmerman by a couple steps for the game-winning double play. The Phils exploded onto the field to mob one another as the Citizen's Bank Park crowd, and fans watching everywhere, erupted for joy. The Phillies are National League East Division champions for the 2nd straight season, and will open the playoffs at home against the wildcard Milwaukee Brewers. And although he had a down season, they simply would not be there again without the efforts of Jimmy Rollins, both in that clinching game, and in the field all season. Thanks to the gifts of his glove, arm, range, and speed, the Phils are once again JRollin' into the playoffs.

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