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Wily veteran Rollins puts Phillies on brink of return to World Series

PHILADELPHIA -- The moment the clubhouse doors swung open to the media, a little past midnight Tuesday morning, the Phillies turned all at once and dashed from their lockers into the privacy of their back lounge. They surrounded their longest-tenured player, raised shots of Tequila Don Julio, and chanted: "One more! One more! One more!" Then they strutted back into the clubhouse, all of them following shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who was wearing a ring of shaving cream atop his head like a crown. It was as though he couldn't bring himself to wipe it off.

Rollins arrived in Philadelphia in 2000, before any other player on the current roster, and he quickly became the king of the city's baseball scene. But this season his crown appeared to be losing a little of its luster. His batting average, .250, was the lowest it had been in seven years. His on-base percentage, .296, was the lowest it had been in his entire career. He did not fare any better in the playoffs, and when he came to the plate down by a run with two on and two out in the ninth inning Monday night, his post-season batting average was down to .216.

He was facing Jonathan Broxton, the Dodgers heat-seeking closer, who was dealing fastballs that reached as high as 101 miles per hour. Broxton had already walked Matt Stairs and hit Carlos Ruiz, so Rollins knew he would go with the one pitch he could control. In that moment, Rollins said that all the action slowed down for him, and on a 1-1 count, he somehow got his bat in front of a 99-mile-per-hour fastball. His line drive over second baseman Ronnie Belliard pierced the right-center-field gap and rolled all the way to the wall. Pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett scored easily from second, catcher Carlos Ruiz charged home from first, and then all of the Phillies rushed toward third. Their leader was waiting for them, arms outstretched, grin spread across his face. A difficult regular season evaporated into one October night.

The Phillies met Rollins a quarter of the way down the third-base line, Ryan Howard leading the stampede, hurling all of his 260 pounds into Rollins's 170-pound frame. "That can be pretty dangerous," Rollins said. He dropped into the fetal position and started throwing delirious punches until teammate Ben Francisco grabbed his arms and restrained him. Rollins's walk-off double gave the Phillies a 5-4 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, a 3-1 series stranglehold, and a feeling that they cannot be beat, at least not at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies have played 11 post-season games in this funhouse over the past two years and lost only once. "It doesn't get bigger," Rollins said.

The rally started with a one-out walk to Stairs, the pinch hitter who beat Broxton with a home run in Game 4 of last year's NLCS. "He was throwing gas," Stairs said. "He just wasn't throwing strikes." Superstitious players on the Phillies bench started shouting, "Same seat!" so as not to jinx a potential comeback. Then Broxton hit Ruiz, the ultimate example of a hitter taking one for the team. Players on the bench shouted to Ruiz, "We've got ice." After a soft lineout by pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs, Rollins dug into the box and relief pitchers Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson tried to visualize a ball landing in the right-centerfield alley. "All of a sudden," Lidge said, "it went there." As the ball rose toward right-center, reliever Scott Eyre noticed he was the only one still seated, and he hopped over the dugout railing with the rest. "It was pandemonium," he said.

The Phillies, in no mood for another cross-country trip to Los Angeles, are now in position to close out this series at Citizens Bank on Wednesday night. They have Cole Hamels on the mound, followed if necessary by Cliff Lee, while the Dodgers are still trying to figure out who they are going to start. The Phillies do not want to say it, but they are on the verge of their second straight World Series appearance, thanks to their old standby and his keen sense of timing.

"You never know with these guys," said Lidge. "They're capable of incredible things."

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