By Jack Etkin
DENVER -- Walt Weiss made a point of watching the Cincinnati Reds when they took batting practice before a game last weekend at Coors Field. He wasn't observing swing paths, listening for the unmistakable sound of superior bat speed or paying attention to anything that had to do with offense.
A former shortstop, Weiss is the first-year manager of the Colorado Rockies. He never saw Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips play before this season. But part of Phillips' pre-game routine intrigued Weiss.
"I heard he uses the little training glove, and I used to do the same," Weiss said. "For most of my career, I took my pre-game with a training glove. I didn't think anybody did that anymore, so I came out and watched him.
"It was impressive to me. Here we are in September, a guy who's an All-Star player is still working on his defense and paying attention to his defense like he probably did in spring training."
Phillips calls his training glove "my little buddy." It is small and flat with slots on the back side for fingers but is not flexible and cannot be closed. It resembles a catcher's mitt more than a fielder's glove and looks like it has been steamrolled. Catching grounders with it requires maximum focus while getting low and putting the glove on the ground.
"I take a lot of balls with the flat glove, so I won't get lazy," Phillips said. "You got to be able to move your feet and use your hands. A lot of people like to catch the ball with one hand, and they get lazy."
Phillips has won three Gold Gloves. He believes "offense sells tickets, defense wins championships" and brings reliability, athleticism, acrobatic grace and occasional flair to second base. In the weekend series with the Rockies, he fielded a ball that was headed up the middle and flipped it behind his back to shortstop Zack Cozart to get a force out.
Last year in New York, Phillips caught a ball hit by Ike Davis of the Mets and threw between his legs to Cozart to start a double play.
"When he makes a spectacular play, nobody in this clubhouse is really surprised," Cozart said. "It's become kind of routine for him to make what with another second baseman seems spectacular."
Playing in his third All-Star Game this year, Phillips caught a flip barehanded from Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and threw in one motion to complete an inning-ending double play on Mike Trout, who runs well.
"You don't see things like that from someone usually you haven't worked with for quite a while," said Tulowitzki, who has won two Gold Gloves. "So that goes to show how comfortable he is at the position and how good he is over there. You see a lot of times guys win Gold Gloves because of their offensive numbers. He doesn't strike me as one of those guys. He's legitimately good over there."
No one knows that any better than Reds first baseman Joey Votto. He gets to marvel at Phillips' ability to make seemingly impossible plays and then catches his throws, the ones with splayed legs while leaping over a runner to turn a difficult double play as well as those after sliding stops well behind second base or on the outfield grass in the hole.
"He has excellent instincts and very good hands," Votto said, "but the reason why he can do what he can do is because of how strong his arm is. I've played with a lot of second basemen that have to put some effort on the ball, but he can take the ball at pretty much any angle and get it across there. You don't see a lot of second baseman with his arm."
Or, for that matter, with his bat. Phillips, 32, has had a notable offensive season, notable for his output, for how Reds manager Dusty Baker has deployed him and, yes, for a brouhaha with a Cincinnati reporter.
Phillips through Thursday was hitting .267 with 18 home runs and a career-high 101 RBIs. He is second in the National League in the latter category behind Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt (106 RBIs) and is bidding to become the first Reds second baseman to lead the league in RBIs. Phillips, who is hitting .349 with runners in scoring position and 11-for-17 with one grand slam with the bases loaded, is the first Reds second baseman to drive in 100 runs since Hall of Famer Joe Morgan had 111 RBIs in 1976.
Phillips began the season hitting second and structured his offseason with that role in mind.
"I was doing a lot of running," he said. "I was doing a lot of bunting. I was doing a lot of things to prepare myself to hit second. But that role changed after Opening Day."
That's when cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick sustained a shoulder injury that sidelined him until Aug. 12. Phillips was Cincinnati's primary cleanup hitter in 2008 and 2009 and had hit there in subsequent seasons, including 73 starts in that spot in the lineup last year. So in the second game of this season, with Ludwick out, Baker again began writing Phillips' name fourth in his batting order.
"There are guys that can't handle being moved," Baker said. "Brandon is only the second guy I had beside Barry Bonds that can hit anywhere in the lineup."
Phillips rather abruptly had to alter his sights when he became the Reds' cleanup hitter.
"My goals had to change from what I had set during the offseason," he said. "Now my goal was to get a hundred ribbies. My eyes was on the prize."
Phillips had 95 RBI through Aug. 27. The following day, Ludwick, having played enough to find his timing and rhythm, was deemed ready to again hit fourth. Baker returned Phillips to the second spot, an ongoing area of trouble where the Reds rank next to last in the league with a .232 average and last with a .281 on-base percentage.
"He can handle the bat as well as anybody on my team," Baker said. "He can run. He can get the ball the other way. He wasn't required to do that when he was batting fourth. You watch him with two strikes or a man in scoring position, that's where he's going."
At the time he was switched to second, Phillips had a .310 on-base percentage, which a Cincinnati reporter noted in a tweet. The Reds were then in St. Louis, and Phillips, in a bizarre scene, interrupted Baker's pre-game media session, directing expletives at the reporter, who had tweeted his criticism about Phillips' on-base percentage.
"Before the season even started, I never care about my on-base percentage," Phillips said. "That's something I just don't worry about. And there's no way in the world I'm going to get mad about my on-base percentage when my job is drive in a hundred runs. I have (at the time) 95 damn ribbies; I'm very proud of myself."
Phillips said his quarrel with the reporter "wasn't about my on-base percentage" but the result of some things the reporter said about a teammate.
Phillips also came in for subtler criticism last month. On the page it devotes to sports, The Wall Street Journal selected the most average hitter at each position. The Journal explained that Stats LLC figured out the average batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage at each position, and the Journal matched a player to those numbers.
Phillips was the choice at second base, hitting .259 at the time with a .308 on-base percentage and a .404 slugging percentage. In closing, the Journal posed the question: What is the ultimate average major league player hitting this season? The answer was .253/.317/.397, and, the Journal said, "Once again that is approximately All-Star Brandon Phillips."
"I don't worry about that kind of stuff," Phillips said. "I don't care what people talk about me. That doesn't really bother me. I feel like I'm one of the best all-around second basemen and probably one of the best all-around players in baseball, but that's my opinion."
Phillips was seated at his locker as he spoke, fittingly wearing a T-shirt that said Doubt Me. Beneath those words was the Under Armour logo.
"It's a slogan for me. That's why they sent it to me," Phillips said. "When people doubt me I love it. I love haters. That's like motivation to me. And I love that people doubt me, because I try to prove people wrong by just doing my work on the field.
"Stat people think I'm overrated, because they go by stats. But when it comes to players who get it done, I'm a winner. I get the job done."
The Reds are charging toward October. They were 79-62 entering Friday, three games behind Pittsburgh and one and a half games behind St. Louis in the tight NL Central and with a seven-game lead for the second wild-card spot.
Since Phillips returned to the second spot in the lineup, the Reds have won five of eight games, including four wins in five games against the Cardinals. And in those eight games, Phillips has scored eight runs and driven in six while hitting .324 along with, not that he cares, a .395 on-base percentage.
"The impression I got is some people are irritated by the way he plays or his antics," said Rockies manager Weiss. "He smiles a lot, and he'll make facial expressions. Maybe some people, that gets under their skin or whatever. But it comes across to me as passion and love for the game.
"I don't think it crosses the line of disrespect to the opponent or to the game. It comes across to me as a guy that loves to play and he wants to play every day and is a really good player."
Jack Etkin has covered baseball since 1981 for the Kansas City Star, the Rocky Mountain News and, these days, for The Sports Xchange and Baseball America.