Rowand will be seeing stars a whole new way

Posted: July 02, 2007

HE IS Lenny Dykstra without the tobacco-juice stains.

Phillies centerfielder Aaron Rowand conjured memories of a vintage Dykstra when he literally offered up his face in order to make a game-saving catch against the New York Mets in May 2006. His crash into the fence at Citizens Bank Park left him with a fractured nose and bones around his left eye, but it also earned him the respect of a fan base that has always placed a higher value on hustle and a blue-collar work ethic than on talent alone.

Now, Rowand's all-out style of play is being recognized beyond Philadelphia and Chicago, where he played his first five major league seasons before coming to the Phillies in the Nov. 25, 2005, trade in which Jim Thome went to the White Sox.

Although Rowand was 20th among National League outfielders in the fan balloting for the July 10 All-Star Game in San Francisco, he was selected to the team by NL manager Tony La Russa, of the St. Louis Cardinals. He is one of three Phillies so honored, joining Chase Utley, who will start at second base for the NL for the second straight year, and lefthander Cole Hamels, who like Rowand is a first-time All-Star.

"I never expected it," said Rowand, 29. "I never got my hopes up for it. To be able to be a part of it is a blessing."

Maybe more of a blessing for the Phillies than for Rowand. Remember the trade rumors that swirled around Rowand all spring? There was talk, a lot of it, that he was packaged for delivery to San Diego, if only the Padres would agree to part with reliever Scott Linebrink.

The deal never went down, lending credence to the axiom that the best trades sometimes are the ones that aren't made.

Although the Phillies still need bullpen help, Rowand is one of the reasons they're 42-40 and remain in playoff contention.

His single up the middle plated a crucial seventh-inning run in yesterday's 5-3 victory over the Mets, helping the Phils avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the NL East leaders.

Rowand - who has appeared in all 82 games - is hitting .312 with 50 runs scored, 12 homers and 42 runs batted in, impressive numbers that fail to fully illustrate his value to his ballclub.

"Aaron's the kind of guy you want on your team," Utley said. "Every day he just goes out there and battles."

More than a few of those battles were waged during spring training. In addition to the distraction of his being constantly mentioned as trade bait, the normally slow-starting Rowand batted just .170 in the Grapefruit League, with 12 hits and one home run in 70 at-bats.

"Rowand had a tough spring," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "He went through a period where he was really fighting himself. He couldn't buy a hit. But he stays at it. He's determined."

The relentless Rowand doesn't deny that he struggled during the spring, but he said his poor production was misleading.

"I wasn't having trouble hitting the ball," Rowand noted. "I was having trouble not hitting the ball at people.

"I hit the ball better in spring training this year than I probably have in my career. I just couldn't get a hit. I actually felt pretty good at the plate and was hitting the ball really well. I just couldn't seem to get anything to fall for me."

Finding holes hasn't been much of a problem for Rowand since the season started, and that's also been the case for Utley, who has established himself as perhaps the best second baseman in the game. In addition to being one of the toughest outs in baseball, he also leads all NL players at his position in fielding percentage.

"I don't have to talk too much about him," Manuel said of Utley's repeat trip to the All-Star Game, which could become an annual occurrence. "All you have to do is come and watch him play."

"Last year I had a great time," Utley said of his All-Star debut. "It went by pretty fast. This year I might try to slow it down a little bit, if that's possible . . . take it all in and have a good time."

The 23-year-old Hamels, in his first full season in the majors, has emerged as the staff ace the Phillies thought he would become when they picked him in the first round of the 2002 draft. He is 9-4 with a 3.87 earned run average and is second in the league with 116 strikeouts, but he lost his two most recent decisions.

"I definitely thought I blew [his chances at making the All-Star Game] this past month," Hamels said. "I haven't been pitching up to par."

Despite his recent minislump, Hamels was third in the balloting among pitchers among NL players, finishing behind only San Diego's Jake Peavy and Los Angeles' Brad Penny.

"It's a tremendous compliment," Hamels said of his rapid rise in stature as one of the league's premier pitchers. "Being an All-Star is very exciting for me. I'm just going to enjoy it."

Two other Phillies with commendable statistics - first baseman Ryan Howard, the 2006 NL Most Valuable Player, and three-time All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins - failed to make the cut this time.

Utley said he was surprised Rollins, who is hitting .283 with 44 extra-base hits, finished only seventh in the fan balloting.

"I'd take Jimmy as my shortstop any day of the week," Utley said. *

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