Rockies return to postseason after year's hiatus

DENVER -- It's a Rocktober redux for the Colorado Rockies, who are back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.

"It stings," Troy Tulowitzki said as he squinted away the tears that were flushing the champagne out of his eyes. "But I've never forgotten '07 and it's great to experience it again. It never gets old."

Aaron Cook pitched four-hit ball over eight spectacular innings in his second start since missing a month with a sore shoulder, and Garrett Atkins drove in three runs for the Rockies in a 9-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday.

The Rockies' fourth straight victory eliminated Atlanta, their final pursuer, from contention for the NL wild card. Colorado can still catch the Dodgers for the NL West title if the Rockies sweep a weekend series in Los Angeles.

"We're in," Tulowitzki said. "Anything can happen once you're in."

The Dodgers, who have lost four straight, were off Thursday and watched their division lead over the Rockies get sliced to two games with three left.

As the Rockies rejoiced behind the mound after the final out, fans broke into a chant of "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A!" while fireworks crackled through a cloudless sky.

"We're celebrating right now. We'll worry about that tomorrow," Todd Helton said as his teammates sprayed him with beer and champagne.

On the other side of the clubhouse, manager Jim Tracy was getting soaked by players serenading him with "Boom Boom Pow" by the Black Eyed Peas.

"I've never had a better feeling than this in 33 years in professional baseball," Tracy said.

He's not planning on resting any regulars in Los Angeles.

"Until we get beat a game, we're going to try to win the division," Tracy said.

A bundled-up crowd of more than 38,000 sat through blustery winds on a 50-degree day to watch the record-setting win. At 91-58, the Rockies set a franchise mark for wins in a season and moved 23 games over .500 for the first time in their 17-year history.

Unlike two years ago, when they got hot at the right time, winning 21 of 22 on their way to their only World Series appearance, these Rockies simply got good.

Very good.

After trading slugger Matt Holliday last fall for closer Huston Street and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies got off to a stumbling start. They were 18-28 on May 29 when Tracy took over after general manager Dan O'Dowd fired longtime manager Clint Hurdle.

When O'Dowd offered Tracy the job, he told him, "I just want to see them play better."

Tracy asked for 60 minutes to mull the offer.

O'Dowd said he'd gladly give him an hour's time to think about it but not a minute more because he needed a manager in the dugout that night.

Tracy talked it over with his wife and told O'Dowd he thought the Rockies could indeed play better under his tutelage.

Have they ever.

Under Tracy, the Rockies are 73-40, and they took over sole possession of the lead in the wild-card race, which they trailed by 9 1/2 games at midsummer, on Sept. 1.

The Rockies, who were 12 games under .500 on June 3, turned their season around and rejoined the pennant race with sensational starting pitching (they're the only team with five starters with double-digit wins), a brilliant bullpen, a mixture of clutch situational and power hitting and deft managerial and front office moves.

The Rockies reached the playoffs as the NL wild card in 1995 and 2007, when they went an unfathomable 21-1 during a stunning run-up to the World Series, where they were swept by Boston after a weeklong layoff.

"It's not been as crazy a ride coming down the stretch but it's been just as fun," Cook said. "So, we're going to enjoy it just as much."

The Rockies are 71-36 since June 3.

"No, I don't think anybody in here was thinking this back then," Atkins said. "If they say that, they're probably lying. We knew we were a better team than how we were playing. But to come back from as far back as we did is pretty impressive."

After whittling their magic number to one on Wednesday night, the Rockies took a quick 1-0 lead Thursday when Atkins' first-inning blooper fell in front of left fielder Ryan Braun for a single, allowing Helton to score from second.

The Rockies chased left-hander Manny Parra (11-11) with a four-run third, when Atkins followed Tulowitzki's run-scoring single with an RBI double into the right-field corner. Parra walked Cook and Dexter Fowler with two outs and the bases loaded to make it 5-0.

Atkins added a run-scoring single off John Axford in the sixth after Braun hit his 31st homer in the top half. Cook then drew his second bases-loaded walk, making it 7-1. After striking out his first four times up, Brad Hawpe hit his 22nd homer off Chris Smith in the eighth, his two-run shot making it 9-1.

Cook (11-6) allowed one run and four hits in his longest outing since June 28 at Oakland, cementing his spot in the playoff rotation.

"All I can say is if there was any doubt in our mind as to whether we think he's ready or not, we got our answer today," Tracy said.

Franklin Morales gave up Mike Cameron's RBI double in the ninth before getting Alcides Escobar looking at strike three for the final out.

"My goggles aren't working," Cook cracked as the champagne rolled over his face and down his neck, where his goggles hung helplessly.

Tracy surveyed the scene, laughing.

"How much do I love them? I don't have words to describe it," he said. "The best thing about this club, look around this clubhouse and the veteran leadership that we have and the youth and the mix that we have here. The young people will be able to feed off this for a long time. I guarantee if you get this taste in your mouth and it won't go away."

Game notes
Colorado's previous best mark was 90-73 in 2007, when it won a wild-card tiebreaker over San Diego in 13 innings. ... The Rockies drew 2,665,080 fans, their highest total since 2002.