- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- Life is about to become a day at the beach for reigning National League MVP Jimmy Rollins.
As his fellow Phillies begin a sadistic grind of a road trip -- two games in Colorado followed by two in Milwaukee and three in Pittsburgh -- Rollins will travel to Florida's Gulf Coast to rehabilitate his ankle at the team's spring training facility in Clearwater.
The in-season hiatus is foreign territory to Rollins, whose durability is almost as impressive as his speed-power combination. In the seven seasons before this one, Rollins appeared in 1,100 of a possible 1,134 games. At 5-8 and 174 pounds, he's one indestructible little man.
This time around, the limitations were too much to overcome. Rollins sprained his left ankle running the bases April 8 at Shea Stadium, and rest and therapy between pinch-hitting cameos failed to have the desired effect. Before Sunday's series finale against New York, the Phillies came to grips with reality and put Rollins on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
"It is what it is,'' said Rollins, sounding like a realist/politician. "I know my game is based on speed, and I don't have too much of it right now.''
During his Florida foray, Rollins can take solace in knowing he leaves the team in very capable hands.
Enter second baseman Chase Utley.
If not for a broken hand that forced him to miss a month last season, Utley would have been at the top of the MVP heap with Rollins and Colorado left fielder Matt Holliday. As it was, Utley missed a month and still hit 22 homers, drove in 103 runs and finished eighth in the balloting.
But there's a difference between the very good Chase Utley and the otherworldly guy swinging the bat right now. As Phillies manager Charlie Manuel points out, Utley is a "balance-rhythm hitter'' who's extremely dangerous when his weight-shift and timing coalesce into a neat and explosive package. He's quick through the zone, gets the ball in the air and hits just about everything hard.
That transcendent version of Utley was on display all weekend against the Mets. He went 6-for-11 with four home runs -- including two in Sunday night's 5-4 victory -- even though New York started two nasty left-handers in Johan Santana and Oliver Perez.
So why did the Phillies lose two of the three games? That's a tribute to the Mets' version of Chase Utley. All third baseman David Wright did was go 8-for-11 with four doubles, a triple, five RBIs and three walks in the series.
"The whole Mets-Phillies rivalry is fun in itself, but when you get two guys who have that kind of a series, it was almost like a mini-MVP race right there,'' said Phillies catcher Chris Coste. "As a fan you can step back and say, 'It was like they were individually battling it out.'''
The two teams won't meet again until the first week of June, but their first six meetings helped set the stage for a rivalry that should be as fun as the hype.
The Phils drew 135,478 fans to Citizens Bank Park over the weekend -- the largest total for a three-game series in the park's five-year history. And the Mets, who were recently dogged by whispers that the Phillies had gotten "into their heads,'' appear to have reasserted themselves by winning four of five after a nine-game losing streak to Philadelphia.
Both teams' lead dogs are on a roll. Utley ranks second in the National League to Atlanta's Chipper Jones with a .750 slugging percentage, while Wright is third at .721. Utley leads Chicago's Derrek Lee by one in home runs, while Wright trails only Pittsburgh's Nate McLouth in doubles. Can you see a trend developing here?
"It doesn't matter if it's against lefties or righties,'' Coste said of Utley. "When he's in a groove like this, it surprises you when he makes an out. He can be 4-for-4 and if he goes out the fifth time, it's like, 'What's wrong with Chase?' He has those rare hands where he can hit the ball deep in the zone or out front. It doesn't matter if the pitch is in, away, down or up.''
As for Wright, the Phillies held him to a .286 average last season by feeding him a steady diet of sliders. But Wright is so confident, locked-in and adept at taking the outside pitch to right field these days, he's borderline unpitchable.
"He's much more relaxed then the last time I faced him,'' said Adam Eaton, Philadelphia's starter Sunday night. "With confidence comes success, and success breeds confidence, and he's definitely exuding both right now. As a baseball fan, it's fun to watch. But when you're in the dugout rooting against him, it's not much fun at all.''
With confidence comes success, and success breeds confidence, and he's definitely exuding both right now.
--Phillies pitcher Adam Eaton on David Wright
As the teams go their separate ways, they still have issues to resolve. The Mets await the return of left fielder Moises Alou, who is rehabbing from hernia surgery in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and could be back in the lineup by the end of the week. Manuel, meanwhile, will continue to play Eric Bruntlett at shortstop and use Jayson Werth and So Taguchi in the leadoff spot during Rollins' rehabilitation.
"The goal is to get Jimmy healed properly, so he'll be the MVP-caliber player that everybody expected for the next 130 games,'' said Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro.
Last year, Rollins helped carry the Phillies when Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard spent time on the disabled list. Now he's forced to watch from a distance as the Phillies try to maintain their place in the NL East sans their catalyst.
"It's my turn to just sit back and be a fan, I guess,'' Rollins said.
If that means watching Chase Utley and David Wright do their stuff, there are a lot worse fates.
The Mets-Phillies weekend series was a showcase of two of the teams' star players: Chase Utley and David Wright.