The perceived slight from the last time Rollins and his Philadelphia Phillies saw the Mets, the one where Jose Reyes hit a home run, wagged an index finger, danced in the dugout and capped it with the kind of handshake kids execute to get into supercool tree houses. Well, Rollins has carried it for more than a month because even if it was innocuous, he always finds something.
Please understand, were Nelson Mandela to wear a Mets uniform, Rollins would bury a spike in his ankle. Orange and blue make him turn red. He embodies this rivalry, and it is the best sort: one perpetuated by feelings of contempt and not bushels of leftover hype from seasons past.
And, sure, brilliant games like the one Tuesday night – an 8-7 Phillies victory in 13 innings during which the Mets, mavens of the meltdown, blew the sort of lead they hadn't blown in more than five years – do not hurt the rivalry's standing. The Phillies grabbed first place in the National League East from the Mets after having lost it for two weeks and did so with the kind of dramatics that recall, in a certain way, last season.
Now, it's not a full-on déjà vu. The Mets don't have a historic lead to fritter away. The Phillies aren't necessarily underdogs. The Mets have Johan Santana, a legitimate stopper. The Phillies don't know which Rollins they'll get – the one who, in the midst of a miserable slump, calls fickle Philadelphia fans "front-runners," or the one who, amid the boos from the scorned fans, rips off eight straight hits, including five in his first five at-bats Tuesday, and looks more like the 2007 NL MVP than some schlub with a big mouth.
"The team, emotionally, was in a different place than we are this year," Rollins said.
Which leaves us with the common thread between this year and last: the Mets and their vulnerability. It's no longer that they play scared, as Jerry Manuel, since taking over as manager for the fired Willie Randolph, has instilled in them a toughness heretofore unseen. It's that the Mets look worn down, in particular their pitching, and with six weeks remaining in the season, fatigue is neither option nor excuse.
The Mets staked Pedro Martinez to a 7-0 lead by the fourth inning Tuesday, and the liveliest fastball he could muster in return sat at 88 mph. Martinez worked in the 84-mph range, so no wonder the Phillies jumped on him for five runs. They tagged Duaner Sanchez with another in the eighth and tied the game in the ninth off Luis Ayala, who was handed the closer's job upon his arrival from Washington, perhaps because Manuel didn't quite understand that he was Luis Ayala.
Blowing late leads to the Phillies is nothing new. Last year, in the Mets' final seven games against Philadelphia, they coughed up four in the eighth inning or later. The Mets' psyche isn't simply bruised. It got dumped into a juicer whole and came out liquid.
"When you lose a game like that, it's devastating," said Phillies catcher Chris Coste, whose bases-loaded single over a drawn-in outfield won the game. "And when you win a game like that, it really can make your season.
"Obviously, there's a lot of the season left to go. This game doesn't get us to the playoffs, and if we would've lost, it wouldn't have knocked us out of the playoffs. But as great as we feel right now, the Mets probably feel equally as bad."
The Mets had backed themselves into the losing situation. Manuel exhausted his whole bullpen by playing matchups and using Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith for one-third of an inning each. With Aaron Heilman having thrown 60 pitches between the 10th and 12th innings, Manuel needed to go to Scott Schoeneweis, whose second pitch to Shane Victorino got shot into the right-field corner for a leadoff triple.
Manuel walked the bases loaded intentionally and faced an untenable situation against Coste. He hits left-handers well. His weakness is on sliders, and with the bases loaded, the prospect of a wild pitch practically eliminated low breaking balls. Coste knew he would see a fastball, his dead-red pitch.
"It's almost hard to fail in that situation," said Coste, already 3-for-3 on the night. "It's designed for the hitter, as long as you're in the right mentality."
State of mind matters so much in this series, and Rollins' is imperative. From Aug. 25 to the end of last season, he salted away his MVP award by hitting .331 with eight home runs, 22 RBIs, 32 runs and 16 stolen bases. To revert to his old self, Rollins, as he put it, "hit the reset button."
For the last two days, he skipped live batting practice and instead hit off a tee. It wasn't conventional, though neither is he, and during those sessions he discovered what was missing.
"When you find your swing, everything else comes back into play," Rollins said. "You're a little more patient because you know where the ball has to be in order for you to hit it. And then you know how to address the ball. When you're searching for your swing, you don't know what the heck you can and can't handle, so you're just trying to do anything you can to put the bat on the ball."
That his final at-bat in the 11th with the bases loaded ended in a pop-up didn't faze Rollins. The Phillies have won five straight, their longest such streak this season, and eight of nine. And even though Wednesday, in the two-game series' finale, they face Santana and his streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings, the Phillies regard the Mets' $137.5 million ace with indifference.
Reyes, on the other hand, is the flint that sparks Rollins. Hypocritical though it may be – Rollins doesn't exactly sprint around the bases when he hits home runs – the substance of his feelings don't matter as much as what he perceives.
"The other team gives you inspiration," Rollins said. "Let's put it that way. When you're able to take that and keep yourself motivated, it helps."
Never did he mention a name. Or a position. Or anything to give away the identity. In that way, Rollins has grown from last year, when in the offseason he said the Phillies were the best team in the division, better than the highly favored Mets.
He was right. The Phillies knew how to win. The Mets didn't. And time is running out for New York to prove that things have changed.
- the Mets