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Rollins edges Holliday in close NL MVP race

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


AP Baseball Writer

NEW YORK -- Back in January, when Jimmy Rollins was making bold predictions, he left one out. Not only were his Phillies the team to beat in the NL East, he was headed for an MVP season.

Rollins won the National League MVP award Tuesday, edging Matt Holliday in a close race after propelling Philadelphia to its first playoff berth in 14 years with his speed and steady all-around play.

"It never crossed my mind that I would go out there and win an MVP," Rollins said on a conference call from California. "I had a real big smile on my face, to make it simple. I was excited but I wasn't quite sure what to feel."

The Gold Glove shortstop received 16 of 32 first-place votes and finished with 353 points in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Rollins, left off the All-Star team in July, proved a prophet after saying last winter that Philadelphia was the team to beat in a competitive division. He backed it up with his stellar play on the field -- and never backed off his confident comments.

"If I say something it's because I believe in it," he explained Tuesday.

Holliday, the left fielder who led Colorado's surprising charge to the World Series, got 11 first-place votes and 336 points. Milwaukee slugger Prince Fielder came in third, with five first-place votes and 284 points.

It was the closest election for NL MVP since Atlanta third baseman Terry Pendleton beat out Pittsburgh's Barry Bonds by 15 points in 1991.

"I don't know what they look at," Rollins said, "but being a shortstop, that's No. 1. Defense is first. Defense is always first."

Rollins batted .296 with 30 homers, 94 RBIs and 41 steals from the leadoff spot, helping Philadelphia rally from a big September deficit to win the NL East. He led the league in runs (139) and triples (20), becoming the second consecutive Phillies player to win the MVP following Ryan Howard last year.

"I was like, if he can win it I can win it. The only thing he can do better than me is hit home runs further than me," Rollins said.

Holliday, the NL championship series MVP, hit .340 with 137 RBIs -- becoming the third player since 1967 to lead a league in both categories. He also had 36 homers and topped the NL in hits (216), total bases (386) and doubles (50).

"It's Jimmy Rollins' day, and I don't want to step on his day," Holliday said in a statement through the Rockies.

Rollins, who turns 29 next week, was a leader all year for the injury-ravaged Phillies, practically carrying them at times because Howard, Chase Utley and several key pitchers were sidelined for significant stretches.

The first player in major league history to have 30 homers, 30 doubles, 30 steals and 20 triples in one season, Rollins was durable, too. He became the first NL shortstop in 34 years to play in every game.

And when the Phillies needed him most, he was at his best. Despite being booed vigorously in New York all season, Rollins batted .346 with six homers and 15 RBIs against the Mets. That helped the Phillies go 12-6 in the season series, winning the final eight meetings with their NL East rivals.

Philadelphia, which trailed the first-place Mets by seven games on Sept. 12, went 13-4 down the stretch and clinched the division title on the last day of the regular season.

"I never really thought about winning an MVP. If I won a Gold Glove, then that was the MVP for a shortstop," Rollins said.

Born in Oakland, Calif., Rollins grew up idolizing and studying another outstanding leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson. The Phillies' star said that's where he got a lot of his "flair."

Rollins was particularly proud that he, Fielder and AL Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia, also from the Bay Area, have set an example that might encourage more black kids to play baseball.

"I hope they one day say, I want to be Cy Young or I want to be MVP," Rollins said. "I know how black kids feel about baseball. I really do. They don't think it's street credible.

"It would be a sad day if one day we are -- quote, unquote -- extinct from this game."

Voting took place before the postseason, when Holliday and the Rockies completed a three-game sweep of Philadelphia in the first round.

Holliday's performance in the wild-card tiebreaker against San Diego did count, however. He hit a tying triple off career saves leader Trevor Hoffman in the bottom of the 13th inning and scored the winning run on a shallow sacrifice fly with a headfirst dive at the plate. Still, it wasn't enough to catch Rollins.

"You look at Matt Holliday's numbers -- I looked at them myself and I'm just amazed. It's sick what he's done," Rollins said.

Fielder also was impressive. In his second full season in the majors, the 23-year-old first baseman led the league with 50 homers -- becoming the youngest player to reach the plateau.

He ranked second in slugging percentage (.618) and batted .288 with 119 RBIs, but his MVP candidacy probably was hurt when the Brewers blew their NL Central lead and missed the playoffs.

"I can't imagine hitting 50 if I was 43 and had every advantage in the world," said Rollins, a switch-hitter generously listed at 5-foot-8, 174 pounds.

His pint-sized stature is one reason he's not worried about his new fame becoming a burden.

"Fortunately for me, I'm still only 5-7 so I can still hide behind a few people," Rollins said.

New York Mets third baseman David Wright finished fourth in the balloting and Howard came in fifth. Braves slugger Chipper Jones, the 1999 winner, was sixth and Padres ace Jake Peavy, who won the Cy Young Award unanimously last week, finished seventh.

It was the seventh time a Phillies player took the honor. In addition to Rollins and Howard, Mike Schmidt won three times (1980, '81, '86), pitcher Jim Konstanty won in 1950 and outfielder Chuck Klein in 1932.

Rollins and Howard became the 11th pair of teammates to win the NL MVP in consecutive seasons, the first since Jeff Kent (2000) and Bonds (2001) with the San Francisco Giants. The previous NL shortstop to win the prize was Cincinnati's Barry Larkin in 1995.

New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez won the AL MVP on Monday, his third.

AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.

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