In his fourth at-bat that day, it happened again . . .
"Running in a straight line," he said from beneath a gleaming coat of sweat worked up taking ground balls at short. "Both times. Nothing fancy. First time I thought, 'OK, maybe it's a cramp or just a little tightness,' and I kept on running and made it worse. This time, I knew right away. And I threw on the brakes and waved to the dugout. So the reason I'm optimistic this time is that because I stopped right away, it wasn't nearly as bad as the first time."
This was his first batting practice since May 21 and just his 14th since that fateful Opening Day, when his right calf seized while running a loosening-up sprint so close to the national anthem that bench coach Pete Mackanin had already presented the lineup at home plate. Rollins was leading off and playing short. He stood for the anthem, then told Charlie Manuel he couldn't go. Manuel had no choice but to start Juan Castro in the leadoff spot.
Rollins played five innings in good health last night against the Brevard County Manatees, a Milwaukee farm club.
"I'll play five more tomorrow night," Rollins said, pleased with his night.
He came out of the chute with two putouts and an assist in the first inning, throwing out the leadoff hitter on a routine play, then nailing two basestealers with nifty short-hop scoops and tags. He skied the second pitch he had seen since the Boston series to right and lined out sharply to center in the third. He had done nothing to cause a sudden yelp of pain, or another limping trip to the trainer's room. He was under careful observation by Threshers trainer Ichiro Kitano throughout his first BP and game action in 25 days.
"Then I'll take Thursday off, play Friday and, hopefully, be ready to go by the end of the weekend," he said."
His night ended with a soft fly to left with two outs in the fifth. It ended without drama, hard slides or excessive baserunning. The perfect baby step, in other words.
In New York, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. termed a weekend return for Rollins as "a little aggressive, but possible." Asked if the Phillies planned to ease Rollins back in for fear of a recurrence, Amaro said they would "monitor it day-by-day. We've got to get him here first."
J-Roll is realistic enough to know that he is 31 years old and what has happened twice with disarming similarity could happen again.
"I could lay a Latin name on you," he said. "It's a calf injury, but it's related to some other surrounding muscles that interact and they've got to heal, too. I'm righthanded, so that's my load leg pushing off, making pivots. The worst part is the fear it could happen again. Frustration, not really. Injuries are a part of playing sports and I've been lucky. This is my first really serious injury and I've been playing in the majors 10 years now."
How exasperating was the downtime that has now consumed 2 1/2 months and taken a ravenous 30 percent bite out of the long season?
He thought it would be worse, that time would drag like a jail sentence, that he would agonize over the Phillies' epic offensive swoon and the obvious domino effect his absence at the top of the lineup would have on the rest of a lineup cut in stone, with the roles sculpted by a track record of success.
"Actually, the time has gone by pretty fast," he said. "It helped to be able to be with the club at home. I got to doing my work with Raul [Ibanez]. He's such a fanatic and so detailed and thorough, it was really hard to take it all in. I had to get myself lined up so I was just doing A-B-C and not getting wrapped up in all the things he was doing. But it was really great working with him."
The Phillies installed a new field while the ballclub was in spring training. I wondered if J-Roll had suffered the first injury sprinting over a square of sod that had not quite settled.
"Not at all," he said. "That grass is perfect. Nope, it just went on me. The surface had nothing to do with it. The second time I was running on dirt."
Jimmy Rollins wore No. 3, Babe Ruth's number. His Phillies number, 11 - it will be retired one day - belongs to Threshers leftfielder Derrick Mitchell.
Just a few more days in the steam bath that is the Florida State League. Then, hopefully, Charlie Manuel will have his favorite leadoff hitter back again.
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