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THE PHILLIES took four straight from the first-place Mets at home last week—late August, no school, a live body in every seat—and suddenly they were in it, trailing New York by two. Off to Miami, for three with the Marlins, bottom-feeders this year. The opener was last Friday night, and at 7:05, the advertised game time, Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies shortstop and leadoff hitter, came to the plate, his 581st at bat for the season. There were 500 people in the stands, maybe. A guy behind the visitors' dugout, in a Phillies cap and a T-shirt that read MUCK THE FARLINS, had a campaign going. � "Jimmy Roll, Jimmy Roll, J-Roll for MVP!" � A lot of people are thinking that. You can make the case. But Rollins's head, his little ears tucked into his big helmet, was elsewhere.
The South Florida night was warm and humid, and Rollins was wearing a red cotton Nike skully over his close-cropped head, to help keep his helmet in place. He had trimmed his eyebrows to help prevent sweat balls from beading up and dripping into his eyes at inopportune times, such as while eyeing a pitch. He had a batting glove on each hand and two slightly thicker sliding gloves neatly folded in his back pocket. (Got to keep the hands soft for his lady, he'll tell you.) He had Ryan Howard's bat in his hands, a bat that's two inches longer and two ounces heavier than his own 33-inch, 30-ounce model, preferring the longer lumber for off-speed pitchers who live on the outside part of the plate, like the Marlins' Friday night starter, righthanded sinkerballer Sergio Mitre. Rollins, a switch hitter, had a simple plan for the game's first pitch: take. If Mitre threw ball one, he had a plan for the second pitch: take again. He was looking to get something started. When Rollins scores in the first inning, it bodes well for the Phils. Through the Mets series, their record was 21--13 when he does.
He smiled at the home plate umpire, Paul Nauert. "We gonna start this thing?"
He was ready for the game, for the series, for the pennant chase.
Nauert replied, "First pitch is seven-oh-seven." A TV thing, of course.
Rollins continued to smile, perfect teeth. "What, they fine you if you start early?"
"Actually, they do."
Rollins kept smiling. You do what you can to stay on their good side.
Finally the game's first pitch was delivered, a sinker away. Ball one. Then strike one. Then ball two. And then the fourth pitch, a sinker off the plate that Rollins—5'7" and a muscular 170 pounds—might have just nicked with his own bat but instead hit to the left-center wall for a double. He went to third on a groundout and home on another one, and at 7:13 the score was 1-0. Twenty-seven Marlins outs later it was Phils 9, Fish 2.
For the night J-Roll had three hits; helped turn three double plays; got caught stealing despite a textbook, use-my-sliding-gloves-for-my-lady headfirst slide; was flipped in the air by a Florida base runner; stopped a run by keeping a single in the infield; and crawled to short after Kyle Kendrick made the last out in an inning, an old pro's move to give his pitcher a blow. MVP? For game number 134, for sure.