Saturday, October 6, 2007
Rockies' run to NLCS defies reason
By Jim Caple
DENVER -- Before we move on to the National League Championship Series everyone predicted in spring training, let us return to those monotonous days of yester-month when the Colorado Rockies were a mere four games above .500 and not only 4½ games behind the Padres in the wild-card race but trailing two other teams as well (and just a half-game ahead of the Brewers). Given that the Rockies were coming off six consecutive losing seasons (and last-place finishes in three of them), it would have been understandable had the players begun checking hotel rates for October in Hawaii.
"You always think about [the offseason] when you're a couple games out in the wild-card race and there are a couple other teams ahead of you," reliever LaTroy Hawkins acknowledged. "But we also knew we were just a winning streak away."
"Just a winning streak"? Outscoring opponents six or seven consecutive games is a winning streak. Colorado's recent winning stretch borders on historic proportions, the likes of which perhaps only George Clooney has ever enjoyed. Saturday's 2-1 victory over the Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the NL Division Series and gave the Rockies 17 victories in their past 18 games. After never winning more than nine consecutive games in their history, the Rockies won 11 games in a row, lost a game to Brandon Webb, then won their next six games.
Asked what this means to an organization that had never won a postseason series, veteran first baseman Todd Helton looked dazed as he tried to answer. "That's a good question," said the man who chose to stay in Colorado when others would have bolted for other teams. After thinking it over some more, Helton finally said it means that the club will "expect this sort of thing from here on out."
It's one thing to expect a successful season, even a World Series. But how can you expect this sort of run? It doesn't just defy expectations, it practically defies mathematics. To get where they are now, the Rockies had to win 14 of their final 15 regular-season games -- and they had only 14 games on the schedule at the time. And remember, this is a team that was in last place and nine games under .500 as late as May 21.
The stretch has been so staggering that it reduced Rockies manager Clint Hurdle to channeling Yogi Berra in his postgame analysis. "We're not going to lose until we lose," he said at one point. And when asked about being the top dog in Denver over the Broncos, he replied, "I don't know if we're a top dog. We're just a dog."
How good are the Rockies going? The Phillies intentionally walked Kaz Matsui in Game 3, a move that likely sent Mets fans screaming onto their fire escapes.
|Jeff Baker came up big for the Rockies, delivering the go-ahead run with a pinch-hit single in the eighth inning.|
How have they done it? Everyone knows the Rockies can mash -- they have four players with at least 24 home runs and were second in the league in runs -- but they also have a surprisingly strong bullpen so deep that Colorado was able to use nine relievers in Monday's one-game playoff against San Diego. Hurdle says most people in baseball still don't recognize the depth of Colorado's 'pen, although Philadelphia probably does after Rockies relievers held the league's top offense to two runs in 11 1/3 innings during the series. A computer error caused the lights to go out for 14 minutes in the second inning; Colorado's pitching caused a longer blackout for the Phillies' offense. Philly hit .172 for the series while the Rockies won big (10-4 in Game 2) and won small -- Saturday's victory was the first time Colorado has won at home while scoring two or fewer runs since July 2005.
"Night after night," said reliever Brian Fuentes, who pitched a scoreless eighth for the win, "someone else steps up."
And Saturday, it was Jeff Baker's turn. The native of Bad Kissingen, Germany, has 37 career RBIs and missed the last three weeks of August with a concussion after getting beaned by Chicago's Jason Marquis. He singled home the winning run Saturday with a two-out, pinch-hit single in the bottom of the eighth off J.C. Romero to break a 1-1 tie and send the noisy sellout crowd into the sort of frenzy rarely seen in Denver outside of when John Elway walks down the street.
I never like putting limits on people. I just like to let them go out and play. And right now, they feel that there is nothing they can't do.
--Rockies manager Clint Hurdle
"I was just excited to get the opportunity right there to put us ahead," Baker said. "It was a big at-bat, and all I wanted was that opportunity."
"I never like putting limits on people. I just like to let them go out and play," Hurdle said. "And right now, they feel that there is nothing they can't do."
|The champagne was flowing in Denver, as Rockies pitcher Jason Hirsh sprays a bottle after the series-clinching victory over the Phillies.|
As the champagne flowed in the clubhouse, the big question was whether the four-day layoff before Game 1 of the NLCS might cool down the Rockies. After all, the only pitcher to beat the Rockies in the past three weeks -- Webb -- could start three times in a seven-game series (including on four days' rest in a possible Game 7).
But the Rockies weren't worrying about that. Rather than question the logic of the past three weeks, Saturday was a night to celebrate and expect even greater things. As Hawkins amended when it was mentioned that Colorado had won 17 of its past 18, "We still have eight more games to win.
What would that make it? Twenty-five of 26?"
Stop. Colorado's past three weeks are already mind-blowing enough.
"We're not trying to figure it out," Hurdle said, "we're just enjoying the ride."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.