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Anthony Castrovince

Indians getting their Phil of former employee

Castrovince: Tribe getting Phil of former employee

Indians getting their Phil of former employee
CLEVELAND -- Derek Lowe vs. Dusty Baker? Yeah, that was interesting and all, until both sides wisely decided to stop yapping about it.

Mat Latos accusing the Indians of stealing signs? Well, sure, that will hold up for a day or so.

But when it comes to genuine, evergreen Ohio Cup intrigue, it simply doesn't get better than Brandon Phillips vs. his old mates.

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It's there in the results, it's there in the backstory, and it's there in the sly smile that creeps across Phillips' face when the topic is broached.

"I don't hate the Indians," he insists.

He just has a funny way of showing it.

  • 142 wins
  • 110 wins

Phillips has hit .364 with nine homers, seven doubles and 31 RBIs in 39 career games against his former club, including a .611 average (11-for-18) this season. And while the game is filled with any number of individuals who have certain successes against certain teams as a matter of coincidence or comfort, Phillips' attack on the Tribe has the background to go with the bruising.

"When I was over here, it was kind of hard when people try to change you instead of letting you be your own self and adapting," Phillips says. "I was young. When you look at young players, just let them play. I wish I would have had the opportunity for them to just let me play, but I never had that opportunity. ... It's hard playing for somebody you don't get along with."

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Phillips didn't get along with former Indians manager Eric Wedge (he referred to him as a "knucklehead" in this particular conversation), and that was the reason the Indians parted with him for a marginal Minor Leaguer named Jeff Stevens at the beginning of the 2006 season. Wedge is long gone, but Phillips hasn't stopped tormenting his old team.

"Where is beating up on the Indians going to get me?" Phillips says. "That's only six games out of 162. But it does feel good to beat up on them.

"They know what they're missing."

He showed them again in a wild one Monday night at Progressive Field, singling to spark a two-run rally in the third, ripping an RBI double in the fifth that basically morphed into an inside-the-park home run, thanks to a Johnny Damon misplay, and singling and scoring again in the ninth to make it too close for comfort for the Tribe.

The Reds ultimately lost, 10-9, because Phillips and friends could only do so much to offset the hole left behind by a brutal start from the simply shaky Latos, for whom stolen signs couldn't possibly have been the only problem. But the Reds still have the upper hand in this season series, thanks to Phillips' seven-RBI effort that propelled them to a sweep in Cincinnati last week.

When Phillips is rolling, the Reds are a particularly dangerous club. Joey Votto is on his now-typical MVP-type pace, but the fact that Phillips has asserted himself so thoroughly in the middle of the order has allowed the Reds' $200 million man some much-needed protection.

One might think that Scott Rolen's return from the disabled list might prod Baker into sliding Phillips back up into the leadoff role, but Baker has taken quite a liking to Phillips' cleanup clout.

Perhaps a speedster like Phillips is best-suited for leadoff duties, but you really can't argue with the recent results. Just as Phillips followed Votto in the long-term extension department, he's followed him with some box-score beauties of late, driving in 25 runs in his last 21 games.

No wonder Baker's not moving him.

"Phillips is a guy who has driven in 90-some runs before," Baker says. "It's not like this is his first time. When I first got here, he was in between Griff [Ken Griffey Jr.]and [Adam] Dunn. ... The cleanup man is exactly what it says. His job is to clean up the bases. Whether you do it with singles or doubles or however, your job is to drive in runs. The last month or so, he's been our second-most productive RBI man, and he was batting leadoff for a good portion of that. If he had been batting cleanup, who knows how many [RBIs] he'd have?"

Over the winter, Phillips focused on the speed portion of his game, doing track work in an effort to improve on last year's tally of 14 stolen bases.

"Next thing you know," he says with a laugh, "I've got two stolen bases. I wish I could steal more bases, but it's hard to do in the four-hole."

It's also hard to do with a bum hamstring, and Phillips played with one for much of the season's first two months. He's feeling better now, and it shows. Because of his low, bat-wagging stance, Phillips relies on his legs even more than most at the plate, so his improved health has had much to do with his improved plate performance.

Much is written and said about Votto's value -- and deservedly so. The guy leads the NL in batting average, OPS, extra-base hits and walks. He is a transcendent talent.

But the Reds needed somebody to shore up that No. 4 spot behind Votto, and No. 4 has stepped up in a big way.

"If it was up to me," Phillips says, "I would just hit leadoff and try to get on base and steal bases. But basically, I'm up for this challenge. Dusty believes in me, this team believes in me and Joey's happy. Somebody had to do it, and I'm happy to do it."

And he seems especially happy to do it in the Ohio Cup.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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