PHILADELPHIA — When the bright lights come on, Jimmy Rollins turns into J-Roll.
He is the resident diva on the Philadelphia Phillies. He loves the cameras, but prefers talking after he’s finished showering and primping. He’s got a big smile, plenty of charisma and a whole lot of swagger.
One more thing, he can flat-out play baseball.
Rollins put the defending champions on the verge of another trip to the World Series by lining a two-out, two-run double off Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton in the ninth inning Monday night. The hit gave the Phillies a 5-4 victory and a 3-1 edge over Los Angeles in the NL championship series.
The Phillies can wrap up their second straight pennant with a win in Game 5 Wednesday night. Cole Hamels, last year’s NLCS and World Series MVP, opposes former Phillie Vicente Padilla.
Rollins, the 2007 NL MVP, had a difficult season. But he’s coming through in the clutch in the playoffs. That’s no surprise for manager Charlie Manuel.
“Jimmy Rollins, the bigger the stage, the better he likes to play,” Manuel said. “The more people watching him, he likes the mike, he likes to talk, that’s the way he is.”
Rollins batted just .250 this year, the second-lowest average in his 10-year career. But the three-time all-star shortstop still was a run producer out of the leadoff spot. He hit 21 homers, had 77 RBIs, scored 100 runs and stole 31 bases.
Rollins often gets criticized for not being a prototypical leadoff hitter. He swings at the first pitch, doesn’t work the count and has a low on-base percentage. But Rollins makes the most of his hits.
And, Rollins is a flawless fielder who has won two straight Gold Glove Awards.
During a June swoon when his average dipped to .211, Rollins was benched four straight games. Manuel thought a few days off could help Rollins regenerate mentally. It worked. Rollins batted .282 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in the final 87 games.
Manuel has always seemed to push the right buttons with Rollins, even when it’s tough love. He yanked him from a game in June 2008 after he failed to run hard on a popup that was dropped. A month later, Manuel benched Rollins for arriving late to the ballpark for an important game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
The two run-ins didn’t hurt their relationship. Manuel and Rollins are tight. When the Phillies are batting, Rollins usually stands next to Manuel in the dugout, and the two are constantly chirping and joking with each other.
“I like everything about his personality because he’s funny,” Manuel said. “He’s got a tremendous personality as far as laughter. But at the same time when he goes up to the plate, he goes up there to hit. And believe me, this guy, he’s always wanting to be up there at a big moment in the game.”
Manuel had a good feeling when Rollins stepped in to face Broxton with the game on the line. In fact, Manuel even predicted Rollins would win it.
“Jim Thome is standing over in the other dugout, and Thome looks over at me, and I motion like that, like he’s going to hit one,” Manuel said. “Thome was looking at me and he’s shaking his head like, ’No.’ With Jimmy up there, I liked that moment. I liked the guy hitting.”
Rollins was just 3-for-18 in the NLCS before he lined Broxton’s 99 mph fastball to the wall in right-centre, giving the Phillies their fourth comeback win of the post-season. Rollins played a key role in two other rallies. He hit ninth-inning singles against the Colorado Rockies in victories in Games 3 and 4 of the division series.
“We believe in ourselves. We believe in our ability. We know that there’s 27 outs,” Rollins said. “Coming to the ninth inning, actually about the seventh inning is actually when we start really getting, I guess, locked in. We’ve been on the other end of that a number of times this year, so just because you have two strikes and two outs, things can still happen. All it takes is a slip-up of a pitch, one swing of the bat, an error, anything to get the ball rolling.”
Rollins’ success in the late innings has been overshadowed by Ryan Howard’s torrid hitting. Howard has at least one RBI in eight straight post-season games, tying Lou Gehrig’s major league record set more than seven decades ago.
Sharing the spotlight is just fine with Rollins. His primary goal is getting another championship ring.
“We understand we still have a job to do,” Rollins said. “We look forward to trying to close it out.”