PHILADELPHIA -- Shortly after 7 tonight at Citizens Bank Park, the defending National League MVP will step to the plate.

When Jimmy Rollins digs in against...

By RYAN LAWRENCE

PHILADELPHIA -- Shortly after 7 tonight at Citizens Bank Park, the defending National League MVP will step to the plate.

When Jimmy Rollins digs in against Washington Nationals starter Jason Bergmann, it will be his first appearance in Citizens Bank Park since calling Phillies fans "front-runners" last week on a nationally syndicated sports talk show.

The biggest question isn't whether or not Rollins will be booed lustily when Dan Baker reads his name over the public-address system.

The issue that transcends greetings is whether the shortstop can get a hit, get on base, and bring a desperately needed spark to a comatose lineup.

"If they want to boo me, that's fine. That's fine. It's not going to affect me from doing my job," Rollins said on a Fox Sports television show last week. "My job is to go out there and try to win ballgames and I'm going to do that my best."

Those comments came Thursday, Rollins' second straight appearance on the program. Perhaps he could have used his time more wisely scrolling through video of his own at-bats than producing provocative sound bites.

During a road trip in which the Phillies won just twice in seven games, and consequently fell out of first place in the National League East, Rollins hit .167 (5-for-30), scored three runs and worked one walk to five strikeouts.

Rollins isn't anywhere close to duplicating his MVP stats. At .266, Rollins' batting aver

age is 30 points lower than it was at the end of 2007. His eight home runs, 42 RBIs and 56 runs are even more distant from last year's totals (30 HRs, 94 RBIs, 139 runs).

Lately, Rollins has had plenty of company when it comes to weak numbers.

On the road trip, the team batting average was .190. Pat Burrell hit .238, Chase Utley batted .231 and Ryan Howard hit .083. Burrell (.167), Howard (.179) and Utley (.220) have managed to hit lower than Rollins (.234) in August. Burrell probably deserves a pardon, since his solo home runs in low-scoring, one-run games Friday and Sunday prevented the team from losing all seven games on the trip.

The Phils have a moribund .202 team batting average this month - the worst in baseball and 10 points lower than the next-worst team. In 16 August games, the Phillies have averaged 3.1 runs per contest.

"I'm puzzled. I stay up late at night thinking about how we can get our offense going," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel told reporters before his team beat edged San Diego in a 2-1 slugfest at PETCO Park Sunday. "I'll listen to what anybody has got to say -- fans, cab drivers, President Bush, anybody."

The Phillies have scored fewer runs in June, July and August (287 in 67 games) than they piled up in April and May combined (308 in 55 games).

Among those who didn't see this coming are the aforementioned fans. The Phils have sold out 38 of their 59 home games, with the season's attendance at 2,491,033 -- the sixth-most in baseball.

Barring a drastic downturn, Citizens Bank Park should shatter the 2004 attendance record of 3.25 million.

All of which makes Rollins recent comments perplexing, since the fans are showing up, and the offense is not.

"I might catch some flak for saying this, but, you know, they're front-runners. When you're doing good, they're on your side. When you're doing bad, they're completely against you," Rollins said in his Shot Across the Country at fans. "For example, Ryan (Howard) is from St. Louis. (In) St. Louis, it seems like they support their team. They're encouraging."

After Rollins remarks caused a stir, he attempted to clarify himself a day later.

"The term front-runner and what it actually means and to what I was using it, what was going through my mind, they weren't accurate," Rollins said. "Front-runners (are) like people who only show up when you're winning. Hey, we're going to cheer you if you win.

"That's not it about Philly fans. They're passionate. They show up -- like I said, 45,000. We've got like 42 sellouts. They announce it every night. That's not what I meant. Like I said, it's the fact that here we are at this point of the year, come out and be supportive. Don't necessarily get on us. We can use that positive energy. And you know that positive energy can lift you; that negative energy can bring you down."

Energy aside, games are won or lost on which team scores the most runs. The Phillies haven't scored nearly enough lately, and all the boos or cheers in the world can't wake up a comatose offense. However, as the leadoff hitter, Rollins can.

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