This installment continues our look at the individual cases for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as the most important player of the Phillies' most successful run in franchise history.
The Phillies’ Golden Era of 2007-2011 had a number of heroes. Looking back, every regular position player, and a handful of pitchers, had big-time moments, or series, or seasons. The Big Three are unquestioned: Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins. Take any one of them off the team, none of this success happens.
But it all had to start somewhere.
The Team To Beat.
No Philadelphia athlete has ever unleashed a quote so brash, so unapologetically brazen. Especially about a team that had accomplished nothing to that point.
Jimmy Rollins stuck out his chest, in front of microphones and cameras, and said in January of 2007 about the Phillies, “I think we are the Team to Beat, finally.”
The sound byte drew raised eyebrows from many, belly laughs from some.
And then something magical happened. Jimmy walked the walk. Just like he always has.
Rollins backed up those bold words with a performance, the likes of which no one had ever seen, before or since. A season that earned him the Most Valuable Player award.
38 doubles. 20 triples. 30 home runs. 41 stolen bases.
No player has reached all of those marks in a single season. With Utley missing a month with a broken hand, with a starting rotation that went one-deep, Rollins put on his cape and led the 2007 team to its first postseason appearance in well over decade.
He changed the perception of Phillies baseball. From without, and, more importantly, from within. Rollins’ swagger was contagious. Almost as if he spoke the Phillies’ 5-year playoff run into existence.
Howard had his big moments, but he also had the feast-or-famine runs of nearly 200 strikeouts per season. Utley was perennially solid, but his mile-a-minute playing style took its toll. Injuries cost him nearly a year’s worth of regular season games during the team’s 5-year postseason run.
Rollins’ name was chiseled in at the top of the order and he wanted it that way. He never shied away from the spotlight. He chased it. He commanded it. And when it shone the brightest on him was when he was at his best.
Game 162. September 30, 2007: The Phillies and Mets entered the day tied for the NL East lead. By the time the Phillies took the field against the Nationals at 1:35, the Mets were already down 7-0 to the Marlins. About ten minutes later, Rollins lead off the bottom of the 1st with a single, stole second and third base, and scored on an Utley sac fly. In the 6th inning, he ripped an RBI triple into the right field corner to put the game away. Phillies win, 5-1, and clinch the first of five straight division crowns.
Game 161, September 27, 2008: Phillies led 4-3. Closer Brad Lidge was on the ropes. Bases loaded, one out. Ryan Zimmerman hits a seed up the middle. Rollins slides on his knees to his left, starting a 6-4-3 double play to end the game and win the team’s 2nd straight division.
Game Four, 2008 NLDS: Phillies with a chance to close out the series against the Brewers. Rollins works a full count to open the game, before demolishing a Jeff Suppan fastball into the right field seats. Phillies advance with a 6-2 win.
Game Five, 2008 NLCS: Almost a carbon copy. Closeout game vs the Dodgers on the road, works a full count, another leadoff homer, this one off Chad Billingsley. Phillies win the pennant, 5-1 the final.
Game Four, 2009 NLCS: Phillies down 4-3, 9th inning. Two on, two out. Rollins turns around a Jonathan Broxton 99-mph fastball into the right-center field gap. Phillies win, 5-4. The Dodgers go quietly in five games, and the Phillies win their 2nd straight NL pennant.
There’s no question now that those Phillies teams had the talent to not just win, but win the whole shooting match. And maybe it was talked about behind closed doors. But it was J-Roll, the front man, who took out the red paint and applied a giant bull’s eye over his pinstripes, as if to say, “If you want it, you’ll have to go through me to get it.”
You can certainly argue that any of Rollins, Howard and Utley are more important than the other two to the Phillies’ run from 2007 to 2011. All of them were integral to the team’s success.
But it was the smallest of the Big Three - generously listed at 5’8” - that cast the longest shadow. Time and time again, Jimmy walked the walk.