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Right after the All-Star break, Phillies rookie shortstop Jimmy Rollins hit the wall. His legs felt heavy, his bat looked slow, and his mental sharpness began to blur, enough so that Phillies manager Larry Bowa recommended that Rollins conserve energy by cutting his pregame routine. Instead of taking more than 100 ground balls every day, Rollins limited himself to about 50. Instead of heading for the indoor cage for extra hitting after batting practice, Rollins chilled in the clubhouse. "Soon I felt fine and started bouncing again," says Rollins, who through Sunday had started 124 of Philadelphia's 129 games, "but for about a two-week span there I was dragging."
Midyear fatigue—finally, some typical rookie behavior from one of Philadelphia's first-year players. Through Sunday the Phillies trailed the Braves by two games in the National League East, and they had a quintet of rookies to thank for the fact that they were still in contention for their first playoff spot since 1993. The youth movement runs up the middle of the field, where conventional wisdom states a team must have veterans to be a contender. In addition to Rookie of the Year candidate Rollins, 22, there's catcher Johnny Estrada, 25, and three righthanded starters: David Coggin, 24; Brandon Duckworth, 25; and Nelson Figueroa, 27
In mid-May, after All-Star catcher Mike Lieberthal went down for the year with a torn ACL, Estrada was called up from Triple A Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre and handled the bulk of the catching until veteran Todd Pratt was acquired in July to share the duties. ( Estrada was hitting .245, with six home runs and 29 RBIs in 67 games.) In late June, the calls started going out for pitching help. "It would be great if we had a bunch of guys who have been through the wars," general manager Ed Wade says of the makeup of his team heading into the stretch, "but we have some very athletic kids who haven't shown a bit of shyness about playing the game."
Since spring training, when he was handed the starting job, the supremely confident Rollins has been the least shy of the bunch. He was batting .278 with a league-leading 40 stolen bases, including a streak of 35 attempts without being caught. Rollins, who was given the job more because of his defensive than his offensive skills, also led the league in triples (10) and at bats (528). "Jimmy has done a great job," says Bowa. "He brings an energy to our team on the field and in the clubhouse."
If Rollins has been the Phillies' offensive spark all season, his fellow rookies in the rotation have kept the club on the Braves' heels. Coggin, Duckworth and Figueroa were a combined 10-7 with a 3.39 ERA. Acquired in the trade that sent Curt Schilling to the Diamondbacks last year, Figueroa was the first of the threesome to be called up from Triple A. He joined the rotation on June 26 as a replacement for the struggling Amaury Telemaco and showed poise as well as a six-pitch repertoire (two-and four-seam fastballs, curveball, changeup, split-finger and slider). "I might not have all of them working every night," says Figueroa (4-4, 3.82), who pitched for seven seasons in the minors, "but I can usually throw two or three for strikes."
Coggin, once one of the organization's top pitching prospects, spent the past two seasons recovering from 1999 shoulder surgery. He was brought up two days after Figueroa's debut and, following a shaky first outing, had allowed more than three earned runs just once in 10 starts. In early July, Wade planned to scour the trade market for a veteran starter, but the strong showings by Figueroa and Coggin persuaded him to look instead for veteran bullpen help. He acquired relievers Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell from the Mets, in essence betting the season on the idea that his rookie hurlers could complement ace Omar Daal (12-4). "We knew we had Duckworth ready to come up," Wade says, "so we figured we'd make a commitment to these guys."
Though he was an undrafted free agent in 1997, Duckworth became the crown jewel of the Phillies' system. He was summoned to the majors on Aug. 4, and in his four starts he was 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA. Armed with 93-mph heat and a sharp curveball, he's a potential ace. That designation can wait, but Duckworth has already won his teammates' confidence as the Phillies prepare for the season's final month.
"They're all so poised," says 31-year-old centerfielder Doug Glanville, who, in his sixth season, is the most grizzled vet in Philadelphia's regular lineup. "I don't expect any rookie collapse from these guys."