CINCINNATI — Brandon Phillips kneels in the on-deck circle and watches pitchers refuse to throw strikes to Joey Votto, watches them issue walk after walk after walk.
It’s the Fear Factor.
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And the ever-visible Brandon Phillips coast-to-coast smile goes international, an around-the-globe smile.
“More rib-eye steaks and I do love steak,” said Phillips, referring to RBI in the baseball vernacular, rib-eye steaks.
After 13 games, Phillips owned 16 rib-eye steaks, mostly well-done, second most in the National League.
“If the other teams don’t change the way they pitch to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips is going to have a whole bunch of RBIs, probably more than 100. And Brandon is lovin’ it,” said manager Dusty Baker.
When the season began, Phillips was batting second and happy about it, “Because batting second I’ll be able to do everything, show the baseball world what a great player I am.”
What is it about great plans? And who was it who said, “Human beings make plans and God laughs.”
On Opening Day, the plans had to be junked. Cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick wrecked his right shoulder and is expected to be absent until the All-Star break. Baker quickly had to adjust his lineup card and he moved Phillips from second to fourth.
“Actually, I’d rather hit fourth than second right now,” said Phillips. “Hitting fourth is just all about driving in runs. When you bat second you have to worry about hit-and-runs and getting guys over.
“When I hit fourth I feel like I can just go out there and free-style it,” he said. “When I hit fourth, the one thing I can’t do is steal bases and that’s one thing I’d like to do. I’d like to use my legs while I have them.”
Asked if he changes his hitting approach when he bats cleanup, Phillips said, “I just try to drive in runners and not worry about my batting average. I just want to drive guys in. When you hit fourth, that’s your job. If you watch cleanup hitters around the league, they don’t worry about hitting .300, they just want to drive those steaks in. And I’m hungry. I gotta bring in those steaks.”
Since moving into the cleanup spot, Phillips is batting .375 with four homers and those 16 RBI.
Phillips missed a game in Pittsburgh to attend his grandfather’s funeral in Florida and said, “I miss him to death and right now he is just smiling down on me. I’m playing for him, I.C. Hodges. I’ve dedicated this season to him and he is shining down on me.”
And Phillips is shining in that cleanup role.
“I’m not surprised about it,” said Baker. “He has cleaned up the most on this team over the period of time he has been here. Brandon has learned how to hit. All he has had to learn is being a little more selective and keep the ball off the ground. He used to hit into too many double plays, 26 one year when I first got here.”
And what does cleanup mean? Does it mean a behemoth wielding a sledgehammer, hitting the ball the length of a $30 cab ride? Not to Baker.
“It is hard to find a prototypical cleanup man,” said Baker. “A cleanup man doesn’t mean, ‘Hit me a bunch of home runs.’ A cleanup man means cleaning up. Driving in runs. Everybody thinks a cleanup man hits home runs. No. A cleanup man cleans the bases up via RBIs, no matter how. He who touches home plate the most is the one who wins.”
Baker paused to indicate something profound was coming and it was.
“I liked Phillips batting second and I liked him in the leadoff spot,” Baker said of Phillips. “But when Ludwick got hurt he was my logical choice for cleanup. He is the only guy I’ve had since Barry Bonds who can hit anywhere in the lineup, hit anywhere and do a great job.”
Both Baker and Phillips have a stake in it, or as Phillips says, “A whole bunch of steaks.”