Jimmy Rollins slowed his sprint shortly after rounding third base as Citizens Bank Park whipped into a frenzy. It was another one of those wild October nights during a five-year stretch of wild October nights in South Philadelphia.
The game was over — Rollins’ two-run line drive in the 2009 National League Championship Series pushed the Phillies closer to another trip to the World Series — and all there was left do was celebrate.
“My mind is like, ‘Yeah I’m celebrating with the guys,’” Rollins recalled. “I turn around and the first person I see is Ryan Howard. It looks like I’m celebrating, but I wasn’t celebrating. I was bracing myself for the hit I was about to take. The year before he put Brad Lidge on the DL, so I was like ‘I have no shot.’”
“He picked me up and put me down like a big old teddy. I was like, ‘Oh, that wasn’t bad at all.’ And then everybody else jumped on.”
Rollins’ place in the Baseball Hall of Fame is being voted on this year for the first time and the results are to be announced Tuesday night. It is expected that he will not garner the 75% needed for election, but he is trending toward gaining enough votes to stay on the ballot for another year.
His Hall of Fame candidacy is debatable — Rollins is the all-time Phillies hit leader and an MVP, but his career Wins Above Replacement is a bit low — but his career was full of Hall of Fame moments, none more so than the hit that beat the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS on Oct. 19, 2009 and rocked Citizens Bank Park.
“You could feel the place shake,” Howard said.
The Phillies, according to Baseball Reference, had a 17% win probability before Rollins’ connected with Jonathan Broxton’s two-out fastball. Since the game ended, that hit is credited with an 83% Win Probability Added, which trails only Kirk Gibson’s “I don’t believe what I just saw” homer vs. the A’s in the 1988 World Series for the most win probability added in postseason history.
So perhaps it was fitting that Rollins, who grew up rooting for the A’s, was thinking of that famous homer as he faced Broxton.
“It’s not ‘if’ you’re going to get it done. I don’t think any successful player has an ‘if.’ It’s just ‘how,’” Rollins said. “It kind of reminded me of Kirk Gibson when he was facing Dennis Eckersley. He tells the story, ‘He’s for sure going to throw me a slider right here’ and he did and he got the home run.”
Two batters before Rollins, Matt Stairs entered as a pinch-hitter to face Broxton with one out and the bases empty. It was their first meeting since Stairs silenced Dodger Stadium the previous October with a go-ahead homer in Game 4 of the NLCS.
Now Stairs, the career-leader in pinch-hit homers, was trying to beat Broxton again in Game 4.
“With Matt in that situation again, you can’t help but think positively and wish that that happened again, for sure,” former Phillies second baseman Chase Utley said.
Broxton’s first pitch was a fastball inside that nearly caught Stairs in the chest. The moment felt like 2008, but Broxton was not going down that way again.
“He walked me on four pitches,” said Stairs, who was then replaced by pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett. “He was careful. I don’t know if he remembered and that was on his mind or not, but I did. It gave me some confidence. I beat him with a home run and then kind of beat him with a walk, so it was kind of nice.”
Broxton, perhaps still frazzled from facing Stairs, hit Carlos Ruiz with a first-pitch fastball to put runners on first and second. After Greg Dobbs lined out, Rollins came to the plate with the game on the line. First, he thought about hitting a home run and how there’s no better feeling than a walk-off homer.
“You hit a home run and get to take it all in instantaneously,” Rollins said. “You hit it, you look at the crowd, and it’s a guaranteed win. Then you kind of push yourself back like, ‘No, that’s not how we do it. We pass the baton.’ If I get a single, a run scores and if only one run scores, then we have a tied ballgame. If Shane [Victorino] doesn’t get a hit, that’s OK, the job is already done, we’ll push it to the next inning.
“Then you go, ‘Man it would be nice to hit a home run. But just do your job.’”
The count reached 1-1 and Rollins was thinking fastball the way Gibson sat on Eckersley’s slider. Rollins knew that Broxton liked to throw the slider, his go-to breaking pitch, in an even count, but he still sat on the fastball.
“I stepped back and was like, ‘You’re going to throw me a fastball.’ And I believed in it,” Rollins said. “I was trying to get a single.”
Rollins was right. Broxton fired a 99 mph fastball, and he lined it into the gap in right-center field. He rounded first as the ball rolled to the wall, knowing it was enough for a tie game. Then he saw Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier pick it up at the warning track “and it’s like ‘OK, don’t get thrown out at second.’ You’re still playing baseball.”
“Once he hit in the gap, I was like ‘We have a shot at this,’” Howard said. “Chooch [Ruiz], for a catcher, well not even for a catcher, he was quick enough where I was like ‘He might have a shot to score if that ball gets to the wall.’ That was Jimmy being in the moment. Being in the big situation and that’s one of the things that made our team so good. Nobody shied away from being in the big situation.
“Everyone wanted to hit. [Manager] Charlie [Manuel] always would tell us ‘You gotta want to hit.’ We all wanted to be in that big situation. If it wasn’t going to be Jimmy, it was going to be Shane. If it wasn’t going to be Shane, it was going to be Chase. Having it be Jimmy in that moment and being up there, time kind of stood still for a little bit because everything is happening so fast, but it goes into like a slow motion kind of haze where we have a shot. Chooch might score here. If he scores, it’s a wrap.”
Ruiz slid into home plate but the relay throw never reached home. The celebration was on. It was the perfect hit at the perfect moment. A night later, the Phillies won the pennant with a six-run rout. But their second straight trip to the World Series was secured by Rollins’ performance in the clutch. It was a Hall of Fame moment in a career that could eventually reach Cooperstown.
“No surprise that Jimmy comes up with a huge hit in a situation like that,” Utley said.