PHILADELPHIA - Tony La Russa watched too many teams pitch around Mark McGwire to let it happen to Jimmy Rollins.
Rollins’ hitting streak was on the line when he came to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning and the Philadelphia Phillies trailing the St. Louis Cardinals 13-5 in Monday’s season opener.
Reliever Adam Wainwright’s first three pitches were out of the strike zone, and those remaining among the sellout crowd of 44,614 at Citizens Bank Park booed each one.
Before the next pitch, La Russa got catcher Yadier Molina’s attention and signaled for a strike. The right-handed Wainwright threw a fastball down the middle and Rollins ripped it down the right-field line for a double to extend his hitting streak to 37 games.
“You have to play the game. We can’t walk him in that spot,” La Russa said.
It was the eighth time during his streak that began against San Francisco last Aug. 23 that Rollins kept it going during his last at-bat. He ought to thank La Russa for giving him a chance this time.
La Russa was in his third year managing the Cardinals in 1998 when McGwire hit 70 homers to break Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61. It was frustrating for La Russa to see McGwire often get nothing to hit from pitchers, especially in tight games. He didn’t want Rollins’ streak to end with a walk when his team had an eight-run lead.
Rollins went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly before getting his hit. He hit two hard liners at center fielder Jim Edmonds, grounded out to first base and fouled out his first time up when shortstop David Eckstein made a spectacular, sliding catch near the railing down the left-field line.
If the score was close, Rollins probably wouldn’t have swung at a 3-0 pitch in the eighth inning. But Wainwright’s fastball was too good to pass up down eight runs.
“If he had thrown a ball and I couldn’t get to it, I wouldn’t have swung,” Rollins said.
“You usually don’t have to give Jimmy the take sign if we’re losing the game,” Manuel said. “I wanted to see him have every chance. He got a good ball and he hit it. But the question will always be there about swinging 3-0.”
Wainwright had no problem challenging Rollins.
“Obviously a guy who plays as hard as he does and gets a streak going like that, I respect that,” Wainwright said. “It’s kind of a pitcher’s duty if a guy has something going like that to give him a chance at it.”
A three-time All-Star shortstop, Rollins ended the 2005 season with a 36-game hitting streak, the ninth-longest over one season in big league history, and the longest in the majors since 1987, when Paul Molitor hit safely in 39 consecutive games.
Rollins’ pursuit of Joe DiMaggio’s major league record 56-game hitting streak has a catch, however.
DiMaggio accomplished his feat in the same season in 1941. The major league marks for longest hitting streak in one season and longest hitting streak spanning two seasons are separate records.
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DiMaggio holds both with his 56-game streak in 1941, but there is a difference in the NL records: Pete Rose (1978) and Willie Keeler (1897) share the NL mark at 44 games. However, Keeler got a hit in his final game of 1896, so his run of 45 games overall is the first record Rollins is chasing.
The previous Phillies franchise record of 31 was set by Ed Delahanty in 1899.
Rollins is a notoriously slow starter with a .227 batting average in April over the last two years. But he had several good swings against reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter and relievers Randy Flores and Wainwright in his first game.
“You don’t get rewarded for good swings,” Rollins said. “I wasn’t worried. As long as my swing is there, I know I’ll get a hit somehow.”
Rollins goes for 38 on Wednesday against tough left-hander Mark Mulder. If he keeps going, Rollins could tie Keeler at 45 next Thursday in Atlanta and would have a chance to break the NL mark in Colorado the following night.
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