Sam Donnellon: Baseball's heroes get punching-bag treatment

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MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff photographer

SOME GUYS see Ryan Howard running full speed at them and sense danger.

Jimmy Rollins saw a port in a storm.

"He's kind of like a shell," Rollins was saying in the wee hours yesterday, after his dramatic two-out, two-run double touched off an odd-looking dogpile halfway down the third-base line. "A little bit of protection."

It's become one of the more dangerous byproducts of Howard's svelte form this season, his ability to move that 6-4, 260-pound frame quickly toward that game's late-night hero, applying the first hit of this odd, uniquely baseball celebration of sudden-death success. Replays also seem to indicate that Howard bypassed the home-plate scrum that greeted Carlos Ruiz as he punched a slide into the plate, choosing instead to build some steam toward his old roommate.

Shane Victorino followed, and Chase Utley and Greg Dobbs. In general terms, first ones to the pile end up on the bottom.

"Me? I'm a small guy," said 41-year-old Matt Stairs. "So I stand on the outside and let everyone go first. Then I get my licks in."

"I'm sure people got hit, kneed, elbowed," said J.A. Happ. "They just don't feel it in the euphoria. If you're on the bottom of the pile you're going to do what you've got to do to get out of there. You've got to be able to defend yourself.

"And if you're the guy like Jimmy? You've got to keep the helmet on and protect the vital organs."

Other sports have mass-bodied celebrations. Hockey players pile upon the overtime goal scorer, football players choreograph some of their post-touchdown parties. But equipment worn to protect them from the other team also keeps them out of harm's way from their own.

Not that anyone celebrating that goal is throwing punches.

Disliked by some teammates on every team he has ever played for, there is no video of teammates jumping on T.O. in the end zone and wailing on him.

"But that's what we do," Rollins said. "Baseball has changed. You probably didn't have celebrations like that in the past, but today guys show emotion, I guess, a lot differently."

Howard was Rollins' armor, even if unintentionally.

"I just kind of went in fetal position and started throwing punches," Rollins said. "And whoever got hit, got hit."

Situated toward the bottom, Dobbs caught a few. He also gave a few.

"See my knuckles?" he said, pushing forward some reddened bone. "I was punching Jimmy in the ribs."

As hard as you can?

Dobbs fired the stupid-question look back. "Yeah," he said. "Try to crack your starting shortstop's ribs."

OK, dumb question. Because it isn't about harming your latest hero. Really, it's about love.

The Phillies' team chemistry is much discussed, much dissected, each time an evening like Monday occurs. The core players like Rollins and Howard who have grown up in the system, their second-place struggles before making the playoffs in 2007, the disappointment and resolve that came from a quick exit - so many factors have forged the us-against-everyone-else unity that is a real part of this team.

Larry Bowa, now coaching third base for the other team, used to complain about what he called a "whatever" approach by his players, and players in general. And to walk around the Phillies' clubhouse after that disheartening 2-1 Game 2 loss, to see Rollins smile and share a joke, it's easy to understand where that came from. Monday night, television cameras caught a few smiles on the Phillies' bench while they still trailed the Dodgers, 4-3.

It can be confusing.

"We don't change," said Shane Victorino. "The thing people should understand about this team is that we're not going to change whether it's Game 1 or Game 3 or Game 5 or Game 7. Our personalities don't change, our attitudes don't change. I mean, yeah, we want to get it done, we want to put the foot on the pedal and keep going . . .

"We've got two MVPs and a potential MVP. We've got all-stars on this team. But it's like there are no superstars here. We're all committed to doing anything we can to win."

"We believe in ourselves," Rollins said. "We believe in our ability. We know you have to play 27 outs."

There were at least 10 guys behind home plate waving their arms downward as Ruiz came home Monday night, making him slide unnecessarily. There were firm instructions on the bench before that, as Stairs walked and Chooch was hit by a 99 mph Jonathan Broxton pitch. No one move, lest their luck swing again.

And when it didn't, when that ball rolled all the way to the wall and Chooch came chugging home, they appreciated the great degree of difficulty of it all the way they have all of this uneven season - and the way others have at their expense, too.

"We've been on the other end of that a number of times this year," Rollins said. "So just because you have two strikes and two outs, things can still happen.

"All it takes is a slip-up of a pitch, one swing of the bat, an error - anything to get the ball rolling."

And the beatings to commence.

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