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Out of Thin Air

Carlos Gonzalez's Triple Crown surge has sparked another late-season Rockies run. But are his stats a Coors Field mirage?

If it's September, then we must be talking about the white-hot Rockies. After slipping as many as 11 games behind the Padres in the NL West in mid-August, Colorado closed to within 1½ of first place through Sunday on the strength of a 10-game winning streak. (Colorado and San Diego began a critical three-game series in Denver on Monday.) It's the third time in four seasons that the Rockies have surged from obscurity into contention down the stretch.

This year's push has been sparked by outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, 24, who has jumped into the NL MVP and Triple Crown races by hitting .455 and slugging .773 with three home runs and nine RBIs in September. At week's end Gonzalez led the league in batting (.337) and was in the top four in homers (32) and RBIs (100). He also had played superb defense anywhere manager Jim Tracy has lined him up—Gonzalez has started at least 27 games at all three outfield spots.

Tracy, the 2009 NL Manager of the Year, plays a big part in Gonzalez's story. After being acquired from the A's in December 2008 for Matt Holliday, Gonzalez was sent to Triple A to open the '09 season. One of Tracy's first moves when he took over for the fired Clint Hurdle in May was to call up Gonzalez (who was hitting .339 in the minors) and make a commitment to starting him. Gonzalez got off to a rough start and saw his playing time cut after five weeks, but Tracy kept him on the roster for his speed and defense. Gonzalez made the most of his occasional midseason at bats, and by early August he was a regular at the top of the order. Tracy's patience was rewarded: Gonzalez hit .314/.379/.599 in the season's final two months, helping the Rockies finish 34--18 and win the NL wild card. He then made a star turn in the NLDS, with a 1.514 OPS in a four-game loss to the Phillies.

But for all his gaudy numbers this season CarGo, who had never hit more than 23 homers in his previous seven professional seasons, is showing little development as a hitter. Gonzalez is walking less (once every 17.0 plate appearances, compared to once every 11.3 in '09) and chasing more balls out of the zone. His line-drive and fly-ball rates are down from a season ago. What's up are his batting average on balls in play (to .381) and home runs per fly ball (to 21.2%, third in the NL), inviting the question of whether Gonzalez is taking a step forward or just having a good year hitting them where they ain't.

Then there's the matter of his massive home-road split. Gonzalez was hitting .385 with 25 home runs and a .773 slugging percentage at Coors Field; closer to sea level those numbers dipped to .288, seven and .450. Gonzalez's unbalanced performance mirrors that of his teammates, who have been far better at home (50--22) than on the road (29--42). Gonzalez and the Rockies are terrors at altitude. But how they play away from Coors down the stretch will determine if there is another Rocktober.

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Photograph by BRAD MANGIN

PRECIOUS CARGO At week's end the 24-year-old outfielder led the NL in batting, hits and slugging.