Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Updated: October 4, 8:29 PM ET
Rockies playing like October regulars
By Jayson Stark
PHILADELPHIA -- The MVP of The Team That Never Loses brought a souvenir of Game 163 with him all the way to Philadelphia.
You won't be able to purchase it at any postseason souvenir stands, though, because it's firmly attached to Matt Holliday's face. And it's not for sale. At any price.
It's a nasty red welt that looks kind of like somebody glued a slice of pepperoni to Holliday's head. And you can find it where his chin whiskers used to be.
It will probably be hanging around, glowing in the dark, for most of October, reminding Matt Holliday that the next time he slides into home plate with the biggest run of his life, he might want to give feet-first a try. As opposed to jaw-first.
But every time Holliday rubs that chin, he's also reminded of something else -- of just what it took for those unbeatable Colorado Rockies to make this journey to October. The blood. The sweat. The tears. Not to mention the pain, the jet lag and the insomnia.
"I'm like a boxer who gets hit on the chin a few times," Holliday chuckled, after The Team That Never Loses had done it again, shutting down the Phillies, 4-2, on Wednesday in Game 1 of their National League Division Series. "Nobody will mess with me tonight on the streets of Philly -- unless they watched the game. And then they'll know I wasn't fighting. I was just playing baseball."
Yeah, but just playing baseball is what Holliday and this unstoppable team of his do best these days, of course. You might have heard something about that.
They've lost one game since Sept. 15. One. They're on a 15-1 run for the first time in the 15-season history of the franchise.
They've now won games in five different cities, in three different time zones, against five different opponents, in that stretch. And now they've also won their first postseason game in 12 years -- and second in the long, glorious life of the Rockies.
So clearly, they find themselves in one of those transcendental states of indomitability. (Yep, and they're hot, too.) But if that's what this is, they don't want to hear about it. They don't want to think about it. They don't want to know about it. And they don't want to define it.
They just want to ride it -- all the way to a parade float.
Anybody who tries to get the Rockies to explain how this happened or articulate what this feels like is fighting a losing battle -- just like all the baseball teams they've mowed down these last couple of weeks.
"I've never been accused of being the smartest guy," Holliday claimed. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking, you know. I'm not a guy who sits around pondering and analyzing what's going on."
We never knew that non-ponderitis was catching before this week. But it's clear from talking to Holliday and his pals in black and purple that it's become a regular epidemic on this team.
"A lot of people have been calling," said right fielder Brad Hawpe. "Friends. Family. They want to talk about it. But me personally, I try to keep it out of my mind. And I think a lot of other guys are, too. It is special. It is amazing that we've been able to pull this off, and we're still doing it. But there's a lot of baseball still to be played."
Well, there will be if the Rockies keep winning at this pace, anyway. Less than two weeks ago, they were 4½ games out of the wild-card lead. Now here they are, leading a postseason series for the first time ever. No wonder they're having a hard time explaining this. No one else can, either.
How, after all, did they get here? They were two games behind the Padres with two to play -- and still scrambled their way into a tiebreaker game. They were two runs behind in the 13th inning Monday night -- and still got to shower in champagne.
So no wonder that even an all-night flight to Philadelphia and the din of 45,000 red-shirted people making fun of Matt Holliday's chin didn't seem like much of a challenge Wednesday. This was the easy part, compared to where this team has come from.
"The last two or three days are just par for the last two or three weeks for us," Hawpe said. "The last two or three weeks have been so stressful that today just felt more like a game. The last couple of weeks have been more like if you lose, that's pretty much your season. Today, we had the leeway of still having four more games scheduled.
"I mean, don't get me wrong. It's stressful, and it's fun, and it's everything you ever imagined. But it wasn't like the last three days."
Now think about this. How many teams do you think have ever started the postseason, thinking how relaxing this feels?
"I don't know," Hawpe said. "But that's where we are right now -- fortunately for us."
|Matt Holliday opened the playoffs just how he closed the regular season -- being a difference maker.|
They have all taken turns starring in the Mountain Time Zone edition of "Heroes." But Wednesday's No. 1 superhero was starting pitcher Jeff Francis.
He was facing a Phillies lineup that was a combined 26-for-51 (.510) lifetime against him, and an outfit that had pounded him for eight runs in 3 1/3 innings just 20 days earlier.
But this time, Francis was dealing from the start. Well, almost from the start. His first three pitches of the day were balls. He then punched out the side on nine straight pitches -- and kicked off the top of the second by striking out the cleanup hitter, Ryan Howard, too.
Only once during the entire regular season did the Phillies' first four hitters of a game strike out -- and that was against Randy Johnson. But it told you all you needed to know about the ugly afternoon the best lineup in the league was in for.
Francis four-hit them for six innings. Then LaTroy Hawkins, Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas no-hit them for the last three. And the only damage the Phillies did came in a span of five pitches in the fifth inning, when Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell bopped back-to-back homers.
But the first four hitters in the Phillies' lineup -- Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Howard -- went a combined 0-for-15, with nine strikeouts. And Utley had the worst day of his career, whiffing four times on a combined 13 pitches.
No player has struck out four times on 13 pitches during a regular-season game in five years (since Alex Gonzalez did it in 2002), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But in the very first game of this postseason, it happened to a guy who finished third in the league in hitting, and who batted .372 at home. That's how good Jeff Francis was Wednesday.
"Not that I was out there to strike people out," said Francis, who transformed himself into a Cy Young candidate by going 16-5 from May 12 on. "But that's kind of the way it went with the first four batters. I was making some good pitches with two strikes, and I think it kind of set us on a good roll."
In Philadelphia, they prefer their rolls with steak, cheese and fried onions. But that's not what they got in their first view of postseason baseball in 14 Octobers.
And those hungry Philadelphians also didn't fare so hot in the Battle of the MVP Candidates -- Holliday versus Rollins.
Rollins went 0-for-3, with a strikeout and a double-play ball. Holliday, meanwhile, mashed a long eighth-inning homer off Flash Gordon -- and just missed a grand slam, in the midst of the Rockies' game-turning three-run second inning, off starter Cole Hamels.
Afterward, Holliday almost seemed more impressed with the near-slam than he was by the home run that actually counted. And it was tough to blame him.
At first glance, it seemed as if he'd launched one over the left-field foul pole. But left-field umpire Derryl Cousins waved it foul. So what was Holliday supposed to do -- appeal to the Supreme Court?
"That was about as good as I can hit a ball," he said. "It would have been great, man. I mean, a 7-0 lead is a lot better than three. But that's the way it goes."
Then again, it's not the like this guy had a lot of room to grumble, considering he just got called safe Monday, scoring the run that propelled his team into October, despite the slight technicality that he never did touch home plate.
A lot of people have been calling. Friends. Family. They want to talk about it. But me personally, I try to keep it out of my mind. And I think a lot of other guys are, too. It is special. It is amazing that we've been able to pull this off, and we're still doing it. But there's a lot of baseball still to be played.
--Rockies RF Brad Hawpe on losing one game since Sept. 15
"I'm a little surprised people think that was so clear-cut," Holliday protested again Wednesday. "I don't think the evidence was that clear, personally. I thought I did touch the plate."
But to that, we can only say: "Hey, let it go." All that matters is that Tim McClelland thought he touched it. And that run, and the game-tying double that preceded it, might just have been enough to nudge him past Rollins in this too-close-to-call MVP mano a mano.
The ballots had all been cast by Wednesday, anyway. But that didn't stop the friendly fans of Philadelphia from booing Holliday vociferously all day. Or from chanting, during his first at-bat: "Over-rated."
Asked if he found that chant at least slightly amusing, Holliday did what any good diplomat would do at a time like this -- claim emergency hearing loss.
"I don't pay too much attention to that, to be honest with you," he said. "If I'm not focused on Cole Hamels, I've got no chance. Most of the crowds that you go play against tell you that you [stink] anyhow. So if I get caught up in listening to what the crowd says, I'll probably have a bad game anyway."
But magically, Holliday's auditory skills seemed to improve when the reviews started pouring in on the photogenic qualities of his mashed-up chin. Asked about some of the "good-natured kidding" he'd heard about that chin, Holliday quipped: "Do they do good-natured kidding around here?"
"Yeah, I've heard a little about the chin," he conceded. "I don't know why. Maybe it's because it's so visible. Or maybe it's because I'm such a good-looking guy anyway."
Right. Or maybe, someone observed, it was because he now looks so "Rocky-esque." Which is a good look for the town he found himself playing in.
"Yeah," said the MVP of The Team That Never Loses. "And I'm going to go climb the stairs later."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
|So much for pressure. Jeff Francis held the National League's highest-scoring team in check.|