Mile High upstarts contenders at Coors
Surprising Rockies hoping for first postseason bid in 12 years
DENVER -- Right fielder Brad Hawpe looked around the Rockies' clubhouse early this season, his confidence growing with each set of eyes he met.
"You start thinking about it, then you look around and say, 'That guy is good,'" Hawpe said. "You look at somebody else and say, 'That guy's good.' You look at another guy and say, 'He's good, too.' Before you know it, you're saying that about everybody.
"That just means we're a good team."
With a victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday afternoon, the Rockies ended a streak of six straight seasons below .500. They want more, although they'd have to receive plenty of help to make their first playoff berth since 1995 and second in their history.
Nonetheless, by being in mathematical contention going into the season's final week, the 2007 Rockies have taken a major step that Hawpe's statement illustrates.
For years, manager Clint Hurdle, general manager Dan O'Dowd and the organization touted the talent the system was developing. But by overcoming a rough start and some body blows during the course of the year, the Rockies backed their bosses' words to the point that they developed a belief in themselves.
Left fielder Matt Holliday put forth a season worthy of National League Most Valuable Player Award consideration. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki struggled through a rough first month, then performed so well that he has sparked a spirited NL Rookie of the Year debate. Venerable Todd Helton suffered through slumps and a lack of power, but played at an All-Star level with the bat and the glove when the games meant the most.
Injuries pounded the pitching staff, but through all that, lefty Jeff Francis emerged as a force, and the club was able to look within to find a bright young closer in Manny Corpas and two future rotation stalwarts in right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez and left-hander Franklin Morales.
Few teams are immune to rough streaks, and the Rockies endured a 10-13 start at home, falling nine games below .500 in May and experiencing a 1-9 road trip before the All-Star break. Such slumps used to debilitate the Rockies, but that hasn't happened
Here's how the year unfolded:
(Not the) same old Rockies
The poor home start was culminated by two punch-in-the-gut losses in a three-game Interleague series against the Kansas City Royals (May 18-20) that they should have swept. One loss occurred when Francis threw 7 1/3 shutout innings, only to see Corpas, in his first full season, give up five hits, four runs and record just one out. The other loss went to the 12th inning, when the Rockies suffered a five-run defensive and pitching meltdown.
After that strange and unsuccessful series, Colorado lost at Arizona on May 21 to fall to nine games below .500. Little did they know that a season-turning stretch began that night.
It began with the return of second baseman Kazuo Matsui after missing 33 with a back injury. The lineup going into the season was dynamic with center fielder Willy Taveras leading off, followed by Matsui. With those two back together, the Rockies would win seven straight.
Francis, the team's best pitcher over the course of the season, started a 2-0 shutout at Arizona on May 23 to win that series. Outstanding pitching and clutch late-innings hitting during a May 25-27 series gave Colorado its first sweep in San Francisco in their history. Two home wins over St. Louis completed the run.
During the streak, the offense produced a .281 batting average, the starting pitching was solid, the bullpen fashioned a spectacular 0.59 ERA, and the defense committed just one error.
"We don't feel we've done anything abnormal, just put together a consistent approach," Hurdle said at the time. "It hasn't been a bunch of walk-off wins, and it hasn't been people doing things you don't think they're capable of doing by any means."
The bounce back
On the nightmarish road trip, which came right after an 11-4 stretch during which they had won two of three on the road against the Red Sox and swept the Yankees at home, left-handed closer Brian Fuentes suffered four straight blown saves. He would later suffer a strained lat muscle and miss more than a month.
Strangely, the confidence didn't suffer. Colorado suffered two shutouts on the 1-9 trip, but it averaged slightly more than six runs a game otherwise. In other words, the Rockies didn't feel their season was over, and a home sweep of the Mets and a series win over the Phillies proved that.
Corpas, who quickly put the meltdown against the Royals behind him, earned his first save against the Mets, and he would convert all 16 of his save chances from that moment. Fuentes would return in August and pitch solidly in a setup role
Why does it have to hurt so much?
Injuries are part of the game, but they reached a ridiculous proportion starting in late July.
Within 10 days, right-handed starters Rodrigo Lopez (elbow), Aaron Cook (strained oblique muscle) and Jason Hirsh (fractured right fibula) would throw their final pitches. Hirsh was hit by a line drive in the first inning on Aug. 7 but would go six innings for a win, not knowing his leg was broken.
In the same inning on Sept. 7, Taveras, who had only recently come off the disabled list with a quadriceps injury, would suffer a re-injury and miss the rest of the year, and Matsui would suffer a strained hamstring and miss nearly two weeks.
The stretch run has included some painful days that pain relievers or even casts can't fix.
On Sept. 11, the Rockies lost to the Phillies, 6-5, chiefly because Yorvit Torrealba's apparent home run was touched by a fan above the fence and fell back onto the field. Umpires, much to the disagreement of the Rockies, ruled that the ball would have never cleared the wall and called the play a ground-rule double. The loss put the Rockies 3 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card with 19 games to play.
After splitting a four-game set with the Phils, the Rockies injured their chances by dropping two of three at home to the Marlins. But a rousing sweep of the Dodgers put those ill feelings in the past.
Leaders take over
In September, Helton hit his 300th career homer and two nights later, he went deep in the bottom of the ninth for a rousing 9-8 victory over the Dodgers, touching off wild celebration.
Helton was a callup in 1997, the last time Colorado played meaningful September games. Down the stretch this year, he played with the confidence of a veteran but the exuberance of a guy making his first trip to the bigs.
Holliday has been even better.
Holliday enters Friday night's opener of a key three-game road set against the Padres with 11 home runs in his last 12 games.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.