Sam Donnellon | Rollins walking the walk

EVEN CRITICS MUST ADMIT HIS ATTITUDE IS TOUGH TO BEAT

Posted: April 25, 2007

AMID THE DOUBT and uncertainty that has defined the first month of the Phillies' season, there is this undeniable definitive:

Jimmy Rollins wears a bull's-eye well.

Via the widespread play of his now infamous "team to beat'' remarks, Rollins has become the face of these Phillies, his performance often offered as an unjust referendum on their credibility. He performs, and the ridicule of yet another stumble out of the gates by his team is minimal. He does not, and well, the jokes about the "beat'' part of that line already have been well-exhausted.

Rather than retreat from that, or even redefine the debate on fairer terms, Rollins' response has been pretty basic and simple:

Bring it on.

"I smile off a lot of things,'' Rollins said before last night's 6-3, come-from-behind victory over Washington at Citizens Bank Park. "That's just me. That's my personality. I don't let too much hold me down. I don't let too much hold me back. What happened is already done. I can't do anything to change it.''

That approach, and an April that has him leading the National League in home runs and total bases, begs this:

Should the Phillies ever find their way into the postseason, what type of reputation would he build? Would he seize the moment or be swallowed by it? Would he provide big swings as Lenny Dykstra did here in 1993, and in New York in 1986?

Is Rollins a red-light player in waiting?

Or yet another Philadelphia would-be icon whose bark is worse than his bite?

There are two schools of thought on that, and much of it depends on whether you think Rollins has performed up to his potential in his six previous seasons.

A career .274 switch-hitter coming into this season, Rollins may be as famous for his uneven hitting statistics as he is for his superb glove. He authored a 38-game hitting streak between the end of 2005 and the start of 2006. His 25 home runs and 83 runs batted in last season set Phillies records for shortstops, and only Albert Pujols has scored more runs since the start of the 2004 season.

And yet he often has seemed an impatient hitter, so eager to be special that he helps himself to outs. There have been seasons in which he has struck out twice as many times as he has walked, and last year's 80-to-57 ratio wasn't far off.

Rollins struck out in the seventh inning last night with a runner on second in a tie game. It was his 14th strikeout this season. He has walked nine times. Hitting coach Milt Thompson, who spent nearly 2 months working with Rollins this offseason, insists the 28-year-old is a more disciplined hitter, and his slugging so far this season might bear that out more than that strikeout ratio does.

"Watch him now at 2-0,'' Thompson said.

These are only numbers, and stats often prove irrelevant in the so-called "red-light'' moments of the postseason. Who expected David Eckstein to hit .391 in last year's World Series? Who expected Scott Rolen to go hitless in the 2004 World Series?

Rollins hit .344 as the Phillies climbed from the crypt last August, and 47 of the runs he drove in came from that point on as well. During his career, he has more home runs and has driven in more runs in September than any other month.

Said Thompson: "He's the type of guy who just loves to be there in the middle of it. It's funny, but when we have a Fox game, he's the first one offering to get miked up. A lot of players don't want to do that.''

Rollins held his own fireworks show Monday night, nearly hitting for the cycle after a moving tribute to Jackie Robinson. Despite the team's unseemly start, there have been other middle-of-it moments as well, most notably that series at Shea when he and Mets fans seemed to have a non-stop dialogue.

"At the end of the day, they're the same people who want to shake your hand and get an autograph,'' he said. "But you're playing against their team. They're going to do anything they can to get you off your game. And they're supposed to. So you show them. Turn around, wave and nod. I hear you.

"And then try to do something special.''

That's how he got the bull's-eye in the first place, wanting this season to be special. Six seasons of playing bridesmaid, of watching the guys who beat you down the stretch succeed and fail on the big stage finally has gotten old.

"I've had some opportunities,'' he said. "And sometimes I delivered and sometimes I didn't. I used to watch those red-light guys, and you know they don't deliver every time, but it seemed like they delivered every time to me.

"And I remember thinking back then, 'OK, in a couple of more years, when I'm a little more confident, that's going to be me. '

"Well, now it's my time. My turn. And I'm gonna take the bull by the horns, and I'm not going to let that moment pass me.''

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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