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Rollins' energy driving Phillies

PHILADELPHIA -- Jimmy Rollins might be the late-season scourge of the National League, but he's still just Gigi's little boy. When Rollins took a Danny Graves pitch off the helmet and went sprawling in the batter's box earlier this week, the impact resonated all the way back home to Alameda, Calif.

"My mom was watching the game and she didn't like it when I got hit,'' Rollins said. "She told me she felt it all the way to her bones. When I got up and started smiling, she knew I was OK.''

The Phillies' postseason aspirations have alternated between lukewarm and downright desperate in recent weeks, but that's no fault of their All-Star shortstop, who continues to leapfrog players who did their thing when wool uniforms and sleeper cars were in vogue.

Rollins extended his hitting streak to 33 games Wednesday night, beating out a four-hopper to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes in the first inning of the Phillies' 16-6 victory. A day after breaking Ed Delahanty's 106-year-old franchise record of 31 hits in a row, he moved into a tie with Heinie Manush, Rogers Hornsby, Hal Chase and George Davis on the all-time list.

There's a history lesson, it seems, in every plate appearance. When baseball writers informed Rollins that Delahanty died in 1903 in an accidental plunge over Niagara Falls, Rollins replied, "He sounds like a hell of a thrill seeker to me.''

Rollins' hit streak, while impressive, is doubly so because of the timing. As the Phillies struggle to keep pace with Houston in the competition for the NL wild-card spot, they're feeding off his speed and dynamic style of play at the top of the order. General manager Ed Wade calls Rollins a "red light player'' -- the type who thrives when he's the center of attention.

"I think he clearly recognizes the position we're in here, and he wants to be one of the players to lead us,'' Wade said. "Both things go hand-in-hand. He was energized by the time and circumstances, and we've been energized by his performance.''

Rollins, 26, is always going to enthrall and exasperate in equal measures. At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, he's a long way from the stereotypical slap-happy leadoff man. This season he has 36 doubles, 11 triples and 12 home runs, and his .429 slugging percentage is eighth best among major-league shortstops.

But Rollins has always had a reputation as stubborn and hesitant to embrace the little things typically expected of a top-of-the-order man. He has never been able to incorporate the bunt into his repertoire, and he's averaging a paltry 3.37 pitches per plate appearance. Even Houston's Willy Taveras and the Mets' Reyes, classic free swingers in the No. 1 hole, take more pitches than that.

Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson, who coached Rollins in the minor leagues and regards him as "a son,'' admittedly goes batty over Rollins' inability or unwillingness to lay off high fastballs out of the zone.

The Phillies took some grief in town when they signed Rollins to a five-year, $40 million deal in June. But the market was essentially set last winter with similar deals for Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, and even stat-heads who disparage Rollins for his career .326 OBP should be able to acknowledge his strong points. He's a fine defensive shortstop, plays with enthusiasm and never begs out of the lineup. This year marks the fifth straight season that Rollins has appeared in at least 154 games.

So why the breakthrough? Some Phillies-watchers point to the presence of Kenny Lofton, who lockers next to Rollins and has developed a certain synergy with him. They're catch-playing buddies in pregame warmups, and they seem to feed off each other's energy. When Rollins reaches base and Lofton reaches behind him, it's common for them to point and acknowledge each other from 90 feet away.

"He's aggressive,'' Lofton said, "and I like aggressive players.''

Said Rollins: "His mental approach has rubbed off on me -- just the way he plays the game. That's a really intelligent baseball man right there.''

Rollins' offseason conditioning regimen doesn't provide much insight into his late surge. Two years ago, he spent the entire winter lifting weights with Jacque Jones in San Diego. Last year, he cut back on the lifting and spent much of the winter working out in solitude at Citizens Bank Park.

Coincidentally or not, Rollins was gassed by the time August rolled around. So he called a moratorium on postgame lifting and extra work in the cage to conserve his energy for the final month.

"I told Milt, 'These pitchers can have the whole month of August. I probably won't get anymore hits. But when September comes around, I'll make up for it. I'm going to hit .400 in September,' '' Rollins recalled.

The streak began inconspicuously enough, with 11 one-hit games and a pair of two-hit outings. But it's since generated a momentum all its own. Since Sept. 6, Rollins has raised his batting average from .261 to .288 and improved his on-base percentage from .306 to .335. He's been more diligent at working counts, and has drawn 11 of his 47 walks this season in September.

The only time Rollins got "antsy,'' as he calls it, was in Tuesday night's game, when he passed Delahanty for the longest hitting streak in Phillies' history.

"I thought to myself, 'Wow, these people actually came here to see me get this done,' '' Rollins said. "Most of the time, when I'm out on the field, the last thing I'm worried about is the hitting streak. If you get a hit it extends the streak, but it's not going to win the game for you that day.''

Barring a late Houston collapse, the prospect of Rollins tying Luis Castillo for next on the hit streak list at 35 straight games might be the only thing for the Phillies to look forward to in the coming days. Could September mark the beginning of Rollins taking his game to a new level in 2006?

"I see no reason why not,'' Thompson said.

At the moment the games still count, and Jimmy Rollins is responding, precisely the way a red-light player should.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.