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Short spark plug charges L.A., not Philly

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – A night's work was over, and two mercurial men crucial to their teams' fortunes were about to vanish and cool their jets. Their body language told the story of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series better than any box score.

Shortstop and leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins dressed quickly in the Philadelphia Phillies' clubhouse, back turned to the room, rubbing lotion on his face and spraying cologne on his neck before making a beeline for the back door.

"No insights," Rollins said to the only reporter able to briefly keep pace. "We'll change it tomorrow."

Meanwhile, shortstop and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal savored the moment in the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse, recounting his sharp single in the first inning that triggered a five-run outburst, his home run that led off the second and the exceptional play he made to squelch a Phillies' rally in the seventh.

"I feel so excited, especially when you give a contribution for your team to win," he said.

A few minutes later, Furcal squeezed onto a packed elevator taking him upstairs along with other Dodgers employees ranging from security guards to concession workers.

"I'm a little guy, I'm a little guy," he said gleefully, and the other employees laughed.

"You hit a big home run," one said, and Furcal smiled, shrugged modestly and popped the tab on a Mountain Dew.

The Dodgers began a daunting climb from an 0-2 hole in the NLCS by defeating the Phillies 7-2 on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium. It was only one win, and it must be followed by two more before the series returns to Philadelphia for the Dodgers to have a realistic chance at getting to the World Series.

Starting pitching, as always, will be the most important factor. The Dodgers' Derek Lowe will need to get deeper into Game 4 than he did in Game 1 and Chad Billingsley will have to do an about-face in Game 5 after his Game 2 debacle. The Phillies will need a stopper-worthy performance from Cole Hamels in Game 5 if they don't get one from Joe Blanton on Monday.

The series also could turn on Rollins and Furcal. Shortstops who bat leadoff can't escape central roles. There is no vanishing into the night without carrying the consequences.

These two in particular are intriguing because it's impossible to predict their performances. Neither player has had an exceptional postseason, yet on a given day either one can make a sudden impact.

And they start each day on equal footing. According to baseball-reference.com, the most statistically similar active player to Rollins is Furcal. In the history of baseball, only one player is closer statistically to Rollins than Furcal – Todd Walker, who retired a year ago.

Both hit with surprising power for their size (5-foot-7). Both steal bases. Both make outstanding plays. And, at times, both can get into a funk, with the bat or the glove.

Rollins, the National League Most Valuable Player in 2007, is in one now. He is 1-for-13 after going hitless Sunday. He has struck out six times. The Phillies don't seem worried.

"Jimmy will hit; he'll be fine," teammate Ryan Howard said. "It's always just a matter of time with him. He sets the tone for us."

Rollins' home run to lead off Game 4 of the NLDS against the Milwaukee Brewers established immediately that the Phillies were not going to let that series get away, despite having lost the previous day.

Furcal's single on the first pitch from Jamie Moyer in the first inning Sunday sent the same message. Moments later he scored on Manny Ramirez's single, and the Dodgers batted around.

Furcal's home run to lead off the second sent another message: The Dodgers weren't going to be silenced after scoring first, the way they had in Games 1 and 2.

"That gives you an indication what he means at the top of our batting order," manager Joe Torre said.

That Furcal is playing at all is a testament to Torre. Furcal was waylaid by a back injury the last three months of the season and had only 10 at-bats before the playoffs began. Some questioned whether he would be on the postseason roster.

Yet Torre knew that for the Dodgers to have a chance at the franchise's first World Series title in 20 years, Furcal had to contribute – even at the risk of rustiness. Furcal made a crucial error in Game 1 and came into Sunday batting .238 in the postseason, but Torre is committed to him.

And Furcal didn't mind staying around to talk about how his back finally feels better, how he appreciates the opportunity after he'd all but written off the season in September. He thanked God and Torre, in that order.

"I worked so hard for it to be like that," he said. "It's tough when you're a switch-hitter. You feel good on one side and not so good from the other. And it's tough when you don't play for like four months, don't see any pitching. I was trying to swing at everything I saw, just to make contact."

Rollins, too, is a switch-hitter. Against the Dodgers' staff of mostly right-handers, he has batted almost exclusively from the left side. But over the course of his career he has hit equally well from both sides.

Not that he stuck around to expound on it after striking out twice, grounding out and flying out. Phillies batting coach Milt Thompson was left to allay anxieties about Rollins by proxy.

"It's a long series; he's fine," he said. "Don't worry about it. Jimmy can follow a bad day with a great day. Happens all the time."

All he needed for proof was to look to the other clubhouse.

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