JIMMY ROLLINS does not look like a typical Most Valuable Player, having lost 10 pounds from a 175-pound frame since the start of the 2007 season, the toll exacted by starting every game at shortstop for the Phillies and coming to bat more times than anybody else in baseball history. Rollins is so small (5'7") and his bat so large (35 inches, 34 ounces) that when he drags the bat by its knob through the clubhouse, as he did before the season finale against the Nationals on Sunday, he resembles a child pulling a wagon. ¬∂ Appearances aside, Rollins is a professional troublemaker, not only for his preseason boast that Philadelphia was the team to beat in the National League East—a pronouncement that irritated many opponents, given that the Phillies had not won a title of any sort since 1993—but also for his hand in making Philadelphia the most dangerous offensive team in the league. The last game, which began with the Phillies and the Mets tied for first place, was as good as any of the previous 161 at explaining why Rollins is the best, not to mention most fitting, MVP candidate in a bizarre National League season.
Rollins began Philadelphia's first turn at bat against Washington with a single. He promptly stole second base, stole third and scored on a fly ball out by Chase Utley. That is how the Phillies, to borrow from Rollins's handle, J-Roll. The 6--1 division-clinching win marked the sixth time in Philadelphia's final seven victories, each one of them necessary, in which Rollins either scored or drove in the game-winning run. The Phils won only five games (of 26) all year—and none after June 9—in which Rollins did not get on base.
"He's the most integral part of this team," says Jamie Moyer, the winning pitcher in the clincher, "because he makes things happen, especially in the first inning. I can't tell you how big that is."
As a fitting coda to a season that began with his brash prediction, Rollins came up for the last of his 778 plate appearances knowing exactly what he needed to do to set a franchise record for triples (20) and become the first player ever with 200 hits and at least 20 doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases. "The [Nationals'] outfield plays so deep, I told myself the only way I could get a triple was to hit it off the concrete part of the [rightfield] wall and have it bounce back toward the infield," Rollins says.
The concrete makes up only a sliver of the wall at Citizens Bank Park, near the foul line. Naturally, that's where Rollins whacked the ball with his final swing of the year, and it caromed toward the infield, giving him time to race into third with his historic triple.
The play epitomized the weirdly entertaining 2007 season in the National League. Just how strange was it?
• No club won more than 90 games. It was the first time that had happened in either league in any full season since the 162-game schedule was instituted in 1961. "There's a lot of parity in the league," Philadelphia G.M. Pat Gillick says, "though some would say mediocrity."
• Only four days before the season ended, every playoff spot remained up for grabs, and nearly half of the league's 16 clubs were still in contention.
• Meet the Melts: New York, up by seven games with 17 to play, suffered the biggest collapse in major league history. No team had ever blown a lead that large that late.
• The last day of the regular season was not, in fact, the last day. Another game was necessary on Monday, after San Diego and Colorado tied for the wild card thanks to the Padres' own spectacular collapse (they led Milwaukee 2--1 with one strike to go on Saturday and 4--2 with 15 outs to go on Sunday but lost both games) and the Rockies' nearly running the table in their last 14 games (in which they went 13--1). Colorado won the seventh tiebreaker in history, 9--8, with a three-run rally in the bottom of the 13th off alltime save leader Trevor Hoffman—who blew his second save in three days—to advance to a Division Series against the Phillies.
• Three teams (the Cubs, Rockies and Diamondbacks) are in the playoffs the year after losing the most games in their respective divisions.
• Pedigree is irrelevant. The four playoff teams have won only two world championships since 1908.
Indeed, after championship droughts were ended by the 2004 Red Sox (86 years), '05 White Sox (88 years) and '06 Cardinals (24 years), four more major league teams have the chance to join the hallelujah chorus in this postseason: the Cubs (the No. 1 drought, at 99 years), Indians (No. 2, at 59), and Phillies (No. 7, at 27).
Philadelphia now finds itself playing an even hotter team: the Rockies, who were a wild-card afterthought on Sept. 15 with a 76--72 record—4 1/2 games behind San Diego—but blazed into the playoffs with one of the greatest runs ever to close a season. Colorado, in fact, had never gone 14--1 in any 15-game stretch in franchise history before pulling it off to grab the wild card.
Though Colorado is 39--42 on the road and 19--19 in one-run games, neither the Phillies nor the Rockies appear to have an obvious edge in their first-round matchup. That's because both teams are riding momentum, are composed mostly of players appearing in the postseason for the first time and harbor a comeback spirit. Philadelphia and Colorado spent exactly five days combined in first place this season.
Rollins, 28, is one of those postseason newbies, having logged the fifth-most hits (1,307) and second-most runs (769) among all active players without a postseason appearance, a distinction that, on May 14, he thought he was destined to keep. That night, as the 17--20 Phillies changed pitchers while trailing Milwaukee 4--2 in the seventh inning, a downcast Rollins turned to third baseman Abraham Nu√±ez and said, "Oh, well. Looks like another rebuilding year."
Philadelphia rallied, however, with six runs in the eighth, and won 8--6. "I came back in the clubhouse," Rollins recalls, "and said, 'That's the last time I'll ever think like that.'"
The MVP race, meanwhile, mirrored the uncertainty of the division and wild-card races. Colorado slugger Matt Holliday had a typical MVP profile: a monster offensive season (a .340 batting average, 137 RBIs and 386 total bases, all of which led the league) capped by a huge September (.368 with 12 homers and 30 RBIs) and a dramatic start to October (a game-tying triple followed by his scoring the winning run in the Rockies' victory on Monday night). But Holliday's numbers were inflated by his playing home games at Coors Field, which, despite using a humidor to store baseballs, remains hitter-friendly. Holliday hit 78 points higher at home and slugged 238 points better.
Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder, 23, became the youngest player ever to hit 50 home runs, but his hitting with runners in scoring position was pedestrian (.270, including .220 with two outs), and the Brewers missed the playoffs.
Mets third baseman David Wright hit .366 in the second half, but rewarding his contribution after his team's ghastly demise would be akin to recognizing an able deckhand on the Titanic.
Rollins might seem lacking in MVP timber too, given that he is a leadoff hitter with an on-base percentage (.344) that is only 10 points higher than the league average, and he led the league in outs (526). But what separates Rollins from the rest of the field is that he plays a premium position (the other top candidates are either corner infielders or corner outfielders) with Gold Glove--caliber skills, he hit for power (30 homers), and he racked up more total bases than every other player except Holliday. Who ever heard of an NL shortstop with 380 total bases? (Nobody. Rollins is the first.) Scoring 139 runs and stealing 40 bases (12 in September without being caught), he produced a body of work that was staggering.
Rollins played leading man for the Phillies right to the end. On Sunday, just minutes after closer Brett Myers locked down the last out of a 16--6 run to the wire, the shortstop grabbed a microphone behind home plate to thank Philadelphia fans for their support—and to make one more brash pronouncement.
"The World Series!" he shouted. "Let's do it!"
Pedigree is irrelevant. The four NL playoff teams have won a combined two World Series since 1908.
The Rockies are in the playoffs only one year after losing the most games in their division.
Tom Verducci's breakdown of the four Division Series and a daily Fungoes blog for each.
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A-Rod for AL MVP, Peavy for NL Cy Young; those are the obvious picks. Here's the rest of Tom Verducci's awards ballot
1. Jimmy Rollins, SS Phillies
2. Matt Holliday, LF Rockies
3. Prince Fielder, 1B Brewers
4. David Wright, 3B Mets
5. Chipper Jones, 3B Braves
6. Chase Utley, 2B Phillies
7. Jake Peavy, P Padres
8. Hanley Ramirez, SS Marlins
9. Alfonso Soriano, LF Cubs
10. Albert Pujols, 1B Cardinals
CY YOUNG AWARD
1. Jake Peavy, Padres
2. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
3. Cole Hamels, Phillies
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS Rockies
2. Ryan Braun, 3B Brewers
3. Peter Moylan, P Braves
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
1. Bob Melvin, Diamondbacks
2. Lou Piniella, Cubs
3. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
1. Alex Rodriguez, 3B Yankees
2. David Ortiz, DH Red Sox
3. Magglio Ordo√±ez, RF Tigers
4. Vladimir Guerrero, RF Angels
5. Jorge Posada, C Yankees
6. Victor Martinez, C Indians
7. Ichiro Suzuki, CF Mariners
8. Mike Lowell, 3B Red Sox
9. Grady Sizemore, CF Indians
10. Curtis Granderson, CF Tigers
CY YOUNG AWARD
1. C.C. Sabathia, Indians
2. Fausto Carmona, Indians
3. Josh Beckett, Red Sox
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
2. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox
3. Brian Bannister, Royals
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
1. Joe Torre, Yankees
2. Eric Wedge, Indians
3. Mike Scioscia, Angels
Photograph by Al Tielemans
ERIC HARTLINE/US PRESSWIRE
CHOKE'S ON THEM Ryan Howard's Phils made up eight games in 17 days on the Mets of Willie Randolph (inset).
[See caption above]
INDIAN SUMMER Sabathia gets the AL Cy with his 19 wins and 209 whiffs.
MR. BIG Holliday delivered in September (and October), while Cla Meredith (inset) and the Padres couldn't close the deal.
[See caption above]