Jimmy Rollins may have killed the Mets, but he’s not owning up to it just yet.
“Last year is last year, and that team knows it,” Rollins said of the Mets following Philadelphia’s 5-2 win on Tuesday. The game was the first between the two clubs since New York squandered a seven-game lead over Philadelphia with 17 games to play at the end of the 2007 season—one of the greatest, most humiliating collapses in baseball history.
The Philadelphia shortstop, who famously declared his Phillies to be “the team to beat” prior to the 2007 season, carried his mastery of the Mets into the new campaign. New York’s first home game in 2008 bore a startling resemblance to the final eight contests between the two teams last season—games in which Rollins often provided the dagger that killed the Mets. Rollins has now hit in each of the nine straight victories over New York, and is hitting .372 in those games.
There’s a disturbing continuity between the end of 2007 and Tuesday’s loss. Certainly, the fan base isn’t healed—the late-arriving crowd had little of the energy normally reserved for opening day. Even when New York pulled ahead of Philadelphia 2-0 on a home run by Carlos Delgado and a bases-loaded groundout by Ryan Church, the reaction was flat. Everyone seemed resigned to an eventual collapse.
That collapse came in two stages, and Rollins was an integral part of both. In the seventh, he began a rally with a one-out single off of Scott Schoeneweis. Shane Victorino followed with a single of his own, and Schoeneweis, whose performances at Shea belie his relative effectiveness, then hit Chase Utley with a pitch to load the bases. Facing slugging lefty Ryan Howard, the lefty specialist induced what should have been an inning-ending double play. But after fielding the grounder, Carlos Delgado threw to second base, hitting the runner Utley and allowing two runs to score. Two batters later, the Phillies took the lead.
Then in the eighth inning, Aaron Heilman walked the leadoff hitter, Carlos Ruiz. So Taguchi bunted Ruiz over. It was notable not only for the play’s success, but because in the bottom of the seventh, Mets catcher Brian Schneider led off with a single, but Endy Chavez failed to get a bunt down, and eventually grounded into a double play.
Up stepped Rollins with a chance to give the Phillies an extra run. And no one doubted what was about to happen, as Rollins drove the first pitch into right field to give the Phils a 4-2 cushion. Two batters later, Rollins scored the Phils’ fifth run. It was insurance they didn’t even need. The Mets went quietly in the ninth on nine pitches, with Jose Reyes, supposed to be the Mets’ answer to Rollins, flying out to end the game.
“He certainly rises to the occasion here,” Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said of Rollins after the game.
He was asked if the Phillies have actually killed the Mets spirit.
“You mean are we in their heads? I don’t know about that,” Manuel said with a grin that seemed to indicate otherwise.
Rollins refused to speculate on whether the Mets had developed a psychological block when playing the Phillies, either. But he smiled even wider than Manuel when he answered.
“That is a question for them, not a question for us,” Rollins said.
Of course, baseball fates can turn on a dime. Following last season’s home opener at Shea, it was Rollins who had to answer the tough questions, when his eighth-inning error allowed the Mets to take the lead in an eventual 11-5 win over the Phillies.
Asked if he took a different mental approach than last year’s opener, Rollins immediately replied, “You mean the error? That’s baseball. That can happen in game one or game 161.”
He pointed out that earlier in his career, the Phillies got whipped with regularity by the Florida Marlins, with those losses helping to deny Philadelphia a chance at the postseason in both 2003 and 2004.
“The Marlins had our number,” Rollins said. “Then we found a way to start beating them.”
It’s early, Rollins pointed out. “The fans remember everything,” Rollins said. “They remember things from 1950-something. It’s just one game, and we have a lot more to play.”
But if the Mets keep playing like it’s September 2007, the number of games is irrelevant. So Jimmy, have you killed the Mets?
“I never count them out,” Rollins said. “If you do count them out, you’re overconfident or not too smart.”
He added, “Last year, I said what I said. This year, I’ll play and let them do the talking.”