In January of 2007, a group of reporters gathered around Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins at a media luncheon in the Diamond Club of Citizens Bank Park. “J-Roll” and the Phillies were coming off two-consecutive seasons in which they were eliminated from playoff contention during the final weekend of the season. They acquired some much-needed pitching help in Adam Eaton and Freddy Garcia. Ryan Howard (28), Chase Utley (29) and Rollins (29) were all in the prime of their careers.
The group was expected to take a step forward in ’07 and the media knew that. As a result, one reporter pressed Rollins on the matter.
Reporter: Would you say right now that because of your pitching that you guys are the team to beat?
Rollins: I think we are the team to beat in the NL East — finally. But that’s all on paper. You look at the Mets staff and I look at them and I’m like “those dudes are getting old.” And we have the young guns. Everyone’s in their prime. Brett [Myers] is going to be looking to show that he’s still No. 1, which is going to push him and Freddy [Garcia] in a friendly competition. You’ve got Cole [Hamels], who’s just a superstar Hollywood stud. Adam Eaton throws darts. And you’ve got the veteran in [Jamie] Moyer, who’s going to snake his way through the NL East this year.
Yes, the Phillies were a much better team on paper coming into 2007 but the Mets won the division by 12 games in 2006. Rollins had a chance to walk back his comments weeks later during spring training. Instead, he doubled down.
“We’re the team to beat. I can’t put it any other way,” Rollins told the Philadelphia media, including Todd Zolecki, in February 2007.
“If they needed motivation to play this game, then they are playing the wrong game,” Rollins continued. “The Mets had a chance last year to go to the World Series. They made it to the playoffs. They won the division. Congratulations, but last year is over. They can take that any way they want, but I’m just stating a fact.”
Rollins’ words reached the Mets’ camp in Port St. Lucie. Carlos Beltrán, who went on to call the Mets the team to beat in ’08, was not amused.
“Good for him,” Beltrán told the New York Post. “What’d they win last year?”
David Wright uttered something similar.
“Our mind-set going into every year when the Braves won was that to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Wright said. “We found a way to dethrone the Braves. The Phillies, they can come out and talk as much as they want. Until they prove it on the field, then it’s just talk. Until somebody steps up out there and dethrones us, we’re the defending National League East champs and we’re going to act like it. … As far as throwing out predictions and talking about it, talk is very, very cheap.”
The stage was set for an intense battle in the NL East but there was a problem: The Phillies began the season 1-5 heading into their first series against the Mets at Shea Stadium.
The opening game of the series was the Mets’ first home game of the season. Rollins was showered with boos as he was introduced to the home crowd during the pregame ceremonies.
For Rollins and the Phillies, the first game couldn’t have played out much worse than it did. The Mets scored seven runs in the bottom of the eighth. Rollins botched a double-play ball, which could have prevented all seven runs from scoring if the relay throw was able to beat José Reyes at first. The fans in Queens taunted him.
“Jim-my Roll-ins”Embed from Getty Images
“I said what I said,” Rollins told the Philadelphia Inquirer after the game. “There’s no reason to have to defend it. I had a lot of fun out there today.”
Rollins also had a message for the fans in Philadelphia.
“They never believe in us until we start winning anyway,” Rollins said. “What’s important now is getting some wins, getting our record back to .500 and going from there.”
New York went on to take two-of-three in the series. After just nine games, the Phillies were five games out of first place in the NL East.
The rivalry would heat up again when the Phillies returned to Shea Stadium on June 5. In the second game of the series, Rollins blasted a three-run home run to lead the team past New York. It was his first home run in 159 at-bats.
“I think I smile too much,” Rollins said when asked about playing the villain after the game. “Maybe if I was a mean guy I’d make for a good villain. But I enjoy playing the game. Eventually, you get tired being mad at a happy guy.”
The next day, Hamels nearly lost the game after giving up back-to-back-to-back home runs. With the Mets leading 3-2, Billy Wagner came in to shut the door in the ninth. Pat Burrell, who had only five hits since May 20, homered to tie the game. The Phillies took the lead in the 10th on an RBI double from Utley.
After the game, the war of words continued between Burrell and Wagner. A member of the New York press asked if Burrell had Wagner’s number.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Wagner said. “He might have it against the Mets, but he’s got a one-path swing and I put it right in his path.”
File that one away for later.
Fast forward to the end of August. The Phillies were five games back of the Mets for first place. Utley was set to return from a broken right hand. As usual, the Bank was set to welcome a slew of large crowds.
“I hope the Phillies fans buy all the tickets, so the Mets fans can’t get in,” closer Brett Myers told Jim Salisbury. “It’s going to be fun. It’ll be more fun if we come out on top.”
It was fun indeed. The Phillies won the first three games of the series. Included was an epic two-run opposite-field walk-off home run from Howard in game two.
“When that ball came off [Howard’s] bat, I think that set the tone for the rest of the series,” Rollins said. “Our fans were finally, finally, finally able to get on the Mets fans.”
Game three narrowly ended on an interference call in favor of the Phillies. The heavyweights in the NL East ended the fight on Sunday with a slugfest.
The Phillies were down by two in the bottom half of the eighth after the Mets scored five in the top half. Wagner came on to get a six-out save, something he had not done successfully since 1999. Burrell and his one-path swing notched yet another home run off Wagner in the eighth.
Down by one, the Phillies’ rally in the ninth began with a single and two stolen bases from Jayson Werth.
“Sometimes Billy doesn’t look; he’s pretty easy to read,” Charlie Manuel said after the game.
A base hit from Tadahito Iguchi tied the game at 10. With Wagner still in the game, Utley came up to the plate with runners on first and second with one out. With a 3-2 count, Utley pulled a pitch to right field, scoring Iguchi from second. What followed was a moment of elation for the battered and bruised Phillies, who secured the first four-game home sweep in Citizens Bank Park history.
The Mets knew the Phillies were coming for first place.
“We’ll get our chance when we come back to take care of these guys,” Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca said after the game. “They danced around the field now. We’ll see what happens when the time comes.”
The next two weeks were rough. The Mets won 10 of 12 while the Phillies only won 6 of 13. They were 6 1/2 games behind the Mets for first place in the division and had their sights set on a wild card spot.
The final series changed everything. Rollins, in the midst of an MVP, campaign, launched a game-winning triple to center field in the second game. Beltran badly misjudged the ball in center field.
The Phillies would go on to secure their eighth consecutive victory over the Mets the next day behind a pinch-hit grand slam from Greg Dobbs in the final game of the series.
“I’m definitely upset,” Wright said after the game. “I’m disappointed. They talked it before the season, and they’ve definitely backed it up the last two series. … They’ve embarrassed us.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be a lapse this time,” Rollins said. “Everything is coming down to an end, and we don’t have time to take a break.”
Still, the odds were stacked against the Phillies. They left Queens 3 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East with 13 to play with the Cardinals, Nationals and Braves left on the schedule. Over the next 12 games, they went 8-4. On the other hand, the Mets were on the verge of collapse.
With eight defeats in their last 13, the Mets gifted the Phillies a chance to win their first division crown since 1993 on the final day of the regular season. A Phillies win and a Mets loss would do just that. Before the Phillies even took the field, the Florida Marlins had a 7-0 lead in New York.
Rollins and the Phillies were destined to shine that day. In the sixth inning, Rollins became one of only four players in MLB history to hit at least 20 home runs, 20 doubles, 20 triples and steal 20 bases in a single season. It all but secured an NL MVP trophy for J-Roll.
“He’s not only my MVP,” Manuel said. “He’s the MVP of the National League. Rollins is a guy that played every day. I’ve never seen so many hard-hit balls in my life. … If you watched all those balls he caught that he turned into double plays, that right there creates a winning team.”
A few innings later, the Phillies claimed the division crown. The Mets were eliminated from playoff contention. They led the division by seven games with 17 left.
“I would have said you’re crazy or hated the Mets if you would have said this was going to happen,” Beltrán told the New York Times after the final game of the ’07 season.
Rollins was on top of the baseball world. He set career highs in games played (162), hits (212), home runs (30), RBIs (94), triples (20), total bases (380), extra-base hits (88) and broke Willie Wilson’s record for at-bats in a season (716). What mattered most, however, is that Rollins kept his word.
“We did it,” Rollins said. “But it’s a blessing because it was definitely a burden that I had to carry all year long. It was heavy, you know? It probably got its heaviest in D.C. when we were out there. My heart was heavy. But I knew it was heavy for a reason. I knew something special was going to happen.”
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