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5/24/2007 01:14:00 PM

NL East: Can Jimmy Get Rollin'?

Ichiro
Jimmy Rollins' slump coincided with a change in the Phillies' batting order.
Mike Ehrmann/WireImage.com
By Ben Reiter

Twenty-seven days ago, on April 27, Jimmy Rollins blasted his NL-leading ninth home run in the bottom of the eighth inning off Marlins' reliever Taylor Tankersley. After that swing of the bat, which came in the season's 22nd game, the Phillies shortstop was hitting .289 with an OPS 1.016 to go with 23 runs scored and 17 RBIs. J-Roll, quite simply, was rolling.

I happen to have been in the Phillies clubhouse on April 27, hours before that ninth homer, and Rollins attributed his hot start to changes he made in his diet over the offseason. "I went from eating white rice to brown rice," he explained, "and my portions were a lot smaller. I ate more fish and chicken, rather than beef -- and I love beef." Rollins said that in the past he's begun the season weighing between 178 and 185 pounds, but wouldn't really hit his stride until he'd whittled himself down to between 170 and 173. "If I get outside of that, my stomach gets in the way, my legs feel heavy," he said. "Right now I'm 172, and I feel great."

I doubt that Rollins has since then been loading up his rice-cooker with the white stuff, or been making daily trips down to Geno's Steaks, but since that day, something has changed. Rollins remains stuck on nine homers -- he's driven in only 10 more runs, scored 12, and, after a 1 for 6 performance last night, his average has dipped to .265. What happened?

It now seems clear that the Phillies panicked after their rough start and began to hope that Rollins -- who had never hit more than 14 homers in a season before last year's 25 -- had suddenly become the slugger that his April indicated. In fact, on May 9, the day after Ryan Howard was hobbled by a strained quadriceps, Rollins, who had taken 1,339 of his 1,366 at-bats the previous two seasons from the leadoff spot, became their regular three-hole hitter. The results speak for themselves. Rollins is now 10 of 52 (.192), with one extra-base hit (a double) when batting third.

While Rollins' struggles began before he was shifted down the lineup, he may have just been naturally regressing to the mean. As fine a hitter as he is, he wasn't going to hit 50 homers (in fact, I can't name a 172-pounder who's come close). That regression been exacerbated by his new position in the batting order. At the time of the switch, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel explained, "I liked his bat there. Ryan's not playing. [Rollins] can go right in that three-hole." Manuel's intimation that Rollins' bat could in some way replace Howard's gets to the heart of the problem. While the homers were nice, Rollins' game is to get on base, to go from first to third, to make his teammates' jobs easier by disrupting opposing pitchers‚ rhythms, and, most importantly, to score runs. He's ranked in baseball's top seven run-scorers in each of the past three seasons, the only player besides Albert Pujols to have done so. Suddenly, though, the Phillies are expecting him not to just score runs, but to produce them. It's not working.

The irony in all this is that the Phillies have been playing slightly better baseball since Rollins began to scuffle: they were 10-12 through April 27, and 13-11 since then. But while Aaron Rowand is hitting .327 with a .398 OBP overall, he's at .263 and .293 as the new regular leadoff man, and Rollins is struggling even worse in the three-hole.

Now that Howard seems as if he'll return any day (he hit a three-run bomb yesterday with Class A Lakewood), the Phillies would be wise to let Rollins roll once again where he can maximize his contributions. In an NL East that features what are likely the two best teams in the league in the Mets and the Braves, the Phillies' only hope for a playoff berth may rest with once again allowing Rollins to do what he does best: bat leadoff.

  • In a related development, Phillies brass reprimanded GM Pat Gillick for publicly taking his team's heart of the order to task for its slow start. Most interesting to me is that Jamie Moyer called a team meeting and announced, as Jim Salisbury reports, "We're playing like a bunch of [wimps]." What do you think Moyer actually said in place of "wimps?" The worst I can come up with is, "Washington Nationals."

  • Ryan Zimmerman's got a fan in the highest of places.

  • Even though Jose Reyes is on pace to drive in more than 80 runs from the leadoff spot, he's strangely struggling in the clutch.

  • Now pitching for the Marlins: The Illustrated Man.

  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien notes that Andruw "Contract Year" Jones was dropped in the order -- and still struck out five times swinging.

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