Streaking squads collide in NLCS
Youth on display for division-rival D-backs, Rockies
PHOENIX -- The last prize the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies played for was the Tucson Cup.The stakes have risen a bit. Seven months after their Spring Training competition for the symbolic Cactus League trophy, the fresh and brash clubs begin mixing it up for a National League pennant on Thursday. Colorado left-hander Jeff Francis will duel Arizona ace Brandon Webb in the 8:37 p.m. ET opener at Chase Field. The Rockies will follow this leadoff match with Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Fogg and Franklin Morales, which the D-backs will counter with Doug Davis, Livan Hernandez and Micah Owings. Colorado made the only adjustment to the Division Series rosters, and it is a significant one: center fielder Willy Taveras, who spent much of September battling a strained quad, the latest of many injuries, was added in place of lefty swing pitcher Mark Redman. This Game 1 is also the first-game-of-the-rest-of-your-baseball-life, opening up a new frontier. Some past postseason showdowns may have pitted tradition against novelty, old school against new blood. But this one is all street cred, matching teams of low profile and high energy. And, of flashing momentum. The D-backs had to gun it down the stretch to survive the Padres for the NL West title. The Rockies, of course, had to be even more relentless and win 13 of their last 14 to survive for a Wild Card playoff game against San Diego -- which they won and kept winning. This is the first NLCS to match teams coming off Division Series sweeps since 1997, when the Marlins and Braves got past the Giants and Astros, respectively. Care for one additional new-age twist? This series matches the only two Major League teams housed outside of the Pacific, Central or Eastern time zones, the Rockies being a Mountain team and the D-backs having their own special niche. So, yeah, talk about teams of young players who are always in their own zone. The D-backs and Rockies are sure to provide the unexpected ... because no one outside of the extended family of their fans has any expectations. They are green, somewhat disrespected and mostly anonymous. "But guess what?" Arizona first baseman Conor Jackson said. "One of these teams is going to the World Series." When it gets there, chances are it will be as humored as both appear to be here. And chances are even better the NLCS survivor will keep producing surprises along with sparkling defensive plays and clutch hits. These teams are honed to the bone by an intense six-month regular season. They tied for the NL lead with 90 wins -- the lowest NL-leading total in a full season since the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers went 88-68, back in the pre-expansion, 154-game era.
"Absolutely, that competition got us ready for this," said Arizona manager Bob Melvin. "We had a tough game every day. The depth in this division was pretty phenomenal.""We always felt that as long as there was an opportunity, we just had to stay focused on our next game," said Clint Hurdle, the Rockies' manager. "We don't try to get too smart. We don't try to figure out too many things." These teams are also virtually intimate with each other, that Spring Training schedule and 18 ensuing regular-season games teaching one team everything about the other. "If you haven't yet found a hole in someone's swing, you aren't going to find it," said Tony Clark, Arizona's veteran first baseman. "They're not going to start positioning themselves on defense differently." Added Jackson, "We know everything about them. When I go up to hit, I know what I'm going to get. It's just a matter of whether I'm going to hit it or not. "I guarantee you, next March, there'll be some bragging rights for one of these. We know all these guys. It's gonna be a fun series." For fans who favor gung-ho exuberance over jaded veterans, it will most certainly be all that. This NLCS is also an escape from the neo way of building winners and a throwback to simpler times -- developing, rather than signing, talent. "As a fan, when I was growing up, I'd enjoy something like this," said Arizona's Jeff Salazar. "Because I appreciate the game of baseball. This shows that you can save money and be successful at the same time. It doesn't have to come down to big-market-or-not. "Hopefully, it can also be a lesson to kids thinking of getting into baseball. We've both shown that if you want to make it, you've got to have everyone working in the same direction. We aren't a bunch of players pieced together. We learned together, so it didn't take us long to adjust to playing with each other here, because we've been together for a long time." It is the same with the Rockies, who began long ago forming the bonds that held up down their grueling stretch. "We didn't wilt," said outfielder Jeff Baker, "because everyone does his share. If someone can't pick you up on a particular day, someone else will. That's the strength of this club. The guys on this team believe in each other." Watch, marvel and you, too, will believe.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.