NATIONAL LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS
THE FOUR members of a Japanese camera crew chronicling Kazuo Matsui's every move made their customary bows to the Colorado Rockies' second baseman as he headed to batting practice at Coors Field last Saturday evening. America, please take a cue from them. You need not pay full chin-scraping homage (not yet anyway) to Matsui & Co., but a little genuflection is called for after their accomplishments over the last three weeks. ¬∂ Entering their National League Championship Series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, the Rockies had won 17 of 18. Previous teams with surges as spectacular as Colorado's are writ large in baseball history—the Miracle Boston Braves of 1914 (who finished 10 1/2 games in front despite being 11 1/2 behind as late as July 15) and the 1951 New York Giants of Coogan's Bluff fame (who trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 1/2 games on Aug. 11 but won the pennant on Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World). But the casual fan knows less about the Rockies than about their ballpark, the thin-air launching pad that's named for a brewski. "If we keep winning, people might take a little more notice," says leftfielder Matt Holliday, 27, the league's batting (.340) and RBI (137) champ, and a possible MVP. "But, tell you the truth, we don't really care."
Indeed, fresh off a three-game dismantling of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Division Series, callow Colorado seems to be a team without any cares. No one outside the Rockies' locker room can explain how they suddenly began bottling magic in mid-September, so why should they try? Even fiction-loving manager Clint Hurdle (he was in the middle of David Baldacci's The Camel Club last week) says the plot defies belief. "I've never been a part of anything like this," says Hurdle.
Says Jeff Francis, the lefty ace who almost certainly had one of the quietest 17--5 seasons in memory, "We've won in so many different ways and with so many different players contributing that you can't really point to one thing."
The Rockies have won dramatically, most notably when they beat the San Diego Padres 9--8 in 13 innings in an Oct. 1 playoff for the wild-card spot. The fact that Holliday appeared to have missed home plate when he slid face-first past catcher Michael Barrett with the winning run only adds intrigue to Colorado's run. "Tim McClelland is one of the best umpires in the game," Holliday says of the ump who made—or missed—that decisive call. "If he said I'm safe, that's good enough for me." (Which sounds as if Holliday didn't get so much as a fingernail on the plate.)
They've won with pitching, especially in the NLDS opener at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, where Francis struck out eight and baffled the hard-bashing Phillies with his change of speeds in a 4--2 victory. Francis, who majored in physics and astronomy during his three years at the University of British Columbia ("I probably won't finish because it's not the kind of degree you get through the mail"), was asked if the late-day shadows afforded him an opportunity to analyze the game from a physics perspective. "No," he said, "I analyzed it through a pitching perspective."
They've won with hitting, outslugging the Phils 10--5 in Game 2 with first-pitch, first--inning, back-to-back home runs from shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Holliday and a fourth-inning grand slam (manrui homa in Japanese) from Matsui, their spray-hitting leadoff man. That blow must have rankled the Mets, who got nothing remotely grand from the former Seibu Lions star. (Insatiable Japanese press + New York tabloids = Major energy drain.) "I played good baseball in New York," says Matsui, who went to the Rockies for utilityman Eli Marrero in June 2006, "but I couldn't make a result." Take heart, Kazuo (he doesn't like Kaz)—the Mets couldn't make a result either this year.
And in the 2--1 win on Saturday that sent the Rockies to their first NLCS, they won with a little bit of everything, giving up only three hits (none off the three relievers who got the final eight outs), getting a game-winning single from a little-used pinch hitter (Jeff Baker) and playing flawless defense (their underrated hallmark, particularly up the middle) throughout. Indeed, Colorado's reputation for having a bunch of one-dimensional bashers is long outdated. Though the Rockies were the second-highest-scoring team in the NL (behind Philadelphia), they were tied for seventh in homers. Since 2002, the balls used at Coors have been stored in an MLB-approved humidor to counteract the effects of altitude, which has curtailed the number of dingers there. Colorado's winning formula now blends gap hitters who can exploit Coors's cavernous outfield with pitchers who keep the ball on the ground.
The Rockies off the field are like the small-campus fraternity that gets involved in community projects, has a solid cumulative GPA and attends chapel regularly. The organization drew fire last season, in fact, when chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort implied, strongly, that the team looks to fill its roster with Christians, and general manager Dan O'Dowd added that "God has definitely had a hand" in some of the moves Colorado made and the games it won. (This season's 90--73 finish marked the fifth time in the franchise's 15-year existence that it ended with a winning record.) The subject hasn't surfaced this season, and O'Dowd said last week that the no-one-but-Christians-wanted angle was overblown. "Many people in this organization have a ton of faith, and I'm certainly one of them," says O'Dowd, who has been with Colorado since September 1999. "But it's not anything we talk about. Our focus is on getting players of good character. When you combine character with talent and nurture it within your own system, you have a good chance of succeeding. That's finally happened here."
Wholesome guys, yes; teetotalers, no—that wasn't cream soda being sprayed around the locker room in the wake of the NLDS clincher. (Memo to Rockies: Even in this bewitching season, shouldn't you wait until you get to the Series to break out the Domaine Ste. Michelle and Coors?)
IF THERE were a victory that suggested divine forces at work, it would be Colorado's last Saturday. The number 29 jersey of Mike Coolbaugh, the Rockies minor league coach killed by a foul ball (SI, Sept. 24), hung in the Colorado dugout during BP. Coolbaugh's impossibly adorable sons, five-year-old Joey and four-year-old Jake, threw out ceremonial first pitches. Right before the game started, the temperature suddenly dropped about 20°, into the mid-50s, and the wind began gusting to 30 mph. In the bottom of the first the lights went out (a computer malfunction was the explanation), causing a 14-minute delay. Then the Rockies played airtight baseball for three hours, winning at home despite scoring fewer than three runs. The last time they did that? July 9, 2005.
You can pick almost any spot on the calendar over the past three weeks to illustrate what a jaw-dropping surprise it is to see Colorado four wins from the World Series. After all, the Rockies spent 100 of the regular season's 183 days in fourth place. On Sept. 17, an off day, they could take pride in having the league's best record over the last three months. Still, they were stuck in fourth, five games out of a wild-card berth.
The next day, however, veteran first baseman Todd Helton hit a walkoff home run to complete a doubleheader sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He got a standing ovation from his teammates in the clubhouse, and suddenly all things seemed possible. "From then on, we just took it one game at a time," said Francis. "Did I just say that? O.K., but it's amazing how that can work."
It was fitting that Helton struck the momentum-starting blow; it helped set a course for his first postseason appearance of a fine 10-year career. Nine months earlier his future in Colorado had been in doubt. Helton owns one of the few extravagant contracts doled out by frugal ownership—he makes about $16.6 million, or roughly 30% of the $54.4 million payroll—and he was on the trading block, with the Boston Red Sox in aggressive pursuit of the five-time All-Star. Eventually the Rockies stopped shopping him, but Helton admits he was hurt.
Amid the popping of corks and the eye-stinging squirting of suds last Saturday, at least a half-dozen teammates said how "happy I am for Todd." But Helton isn't particularly emotional, and Colorado is that rare team that functions without a single focal—and vocal—personality. "They don't want a slogan or a manager always making the grand statements," says manager Clint Hurdle. "Many times I just get out of the way and let them run things, and they tend to make good decisions."
The leader-in-waiting is clearly Tulowitzki, who epitomizes the undersung Rockies. One TBS promo that highlighted the outstanding young players in the postseason did not even mention the 22-year-old, a Gold Glove--quality defender who hit 15 homers and had 61 RBIs after the All-Star break. When Colorado was slumping in mid-May, Tulowitzki called out his team, saying that he was tired of losing. "There's a lot of guys I can learn from in this locker room," he says, "but if I have something to say, I will say it."
Tulowitzki fits comfortably into the All-American, strapping-jock template that constitutes the meat of Colorado's lineup. Third hitter Holliday (6'4", 235 pounds) was a legendary schoolboy athlete in Stillwater, Okla., a latter-day Mickey Mantle who had signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Oklahoma State. Cleanup hitter Helton was a QB at Tennessee before being replaced by a guy named Peyton Manning in 1994.
Tulowitzki's own second sport was basketball. As a high school senior at Fremont High in Sunnyvale, Calif., he nailed a 35-foot buzzer-beater to win a quarterfinal game in the sectional tournament, and he believes he could have played Division I hoops. But baseball was his clear calling, and the Rockies took him with the seventh pick of the absurdly deep 2005 draft, which included Justin Upton (Diamondbacks), Alex Gordon (Royals), Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox), each of whom has already made an impact at the major league level. The player to whom the 6'3", 205-pound Tulowitzki is often compared is another strapping shortstop with a steadying presence, Cal Ripken Jr.
It is premature, of course, to compare a rookie, even one with his own rhythmic Coors Field clap—too-LOW! (clap-clap-clap) too-LOW! (clap-clap-clap)—to the Iron Oriole, just as it's premature to consider Colorado an NLCS favo....
Actually, it's not too early for that. Offensively, defensively, psychologically and karmically the Rockies have that "team of destiny" look to them. No other team remaining in the postseason is on a roll that's as exhilarating, magical and splendidly incomprehensible.
The Rockies win with a little bit of everything; their reputation for having a bunch of ONE-DIMENSIONAL BASHERS is long outdated.
Taking His Cuts
Read Tom Verducci's take on each day's playoff action, plus daily blogs from each LCS.
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Photograph by Al Tielemans
HIGHER POWER Matsui's surprising grand slam broke open Game 2, but his speed at the top of the order and, even more valuably, his defense have been constants.
STILL NO VACATION The Rockies' homer totals are down, but Holliday and Co. still get on base as much as anyone in the NL.
NOTHING SHORT OF TERRIFIC With a profile that recalls Ripken, Tulowitzki is the backbone of baseball's best defense.