Rockies familiar with late-season push
Colorado trying to repeat the magic of 2007 NL pennant
As the All-Star Game approached in July, the Colorado Rockies were finally convinced they had a shot at the National League Wild Card berth. That was a huge turnaround because only a few weeks before, they were sinking in quicksand.
Now, as the season dwindles into September the Rockies not only have their eyes on the back-door entrance (i.e. Wild Card) to the postseason, but also the big prize -- the NL Western Division title. They have a comfortable lead over San Francisco, this weekend's opponent, in the Wild Card race.
Their chances to catch division leader Los Angeles suffered a setback on Thursday, but regardless, this has been an incredible summer for Colorado and it can't be blamed on Denver's thin air. This is a team that's found itself, discovered it can win and is writing one of baseball's best stories for 2009.
Thursday, as they tried to win the rubber game in a crucial series with Los Angeles, the atmosphere at Coors Field had all the drama of the playoffs.
The Dodgers, whose lead shrunk to just two games after the Rockies won on Tuesday night, left town with a four-game cushion. They won on Wednesday and took Thursday's matinee, 3-2.
"It has been a nice run," said general manager Dan O'Dowd. "I just wish there were just two weeks left instead of 30-some games. I'm very cautious, but we have played well with a lot of heart and energy. It's been a fun ballclub to watch."
The Rockies were dreadful in May, mired in last place as the mighty Dodgers were playing like they might wrap up the division by Memorial Day.
O'Dowd was trying to decide whether to sell off some of the team's high-priced talent and look ahead to 2010. He was so disappointed and frustrated that on May 29, he fired manager Clint Hurdle, a close friend who'd been at the helm for eight years.
Bench coach Jim Tracy, with managerial stops with the Dodgers and Pirates, took over and it was as if he pushed the WIN button.
The Rockies responded immediately, closing in on the Giants in the Wild Card race. After starting 2-3 under Tracy, the Rockies reeled off an 11-game winning streak, lost a game, then won six in a row.
Beginning Aug. 16, they'd won eight of 10 and on Tuesday night, when they edged the Dodgers, 5-4, in 10 innings, they were just two games out of first place.
I believe Los Angeles is a superior team -- better balance, stronger pitching, more fire power and experience. Plus, the Dodgers have an easier schedule in September.
But there were better teams in the NL in 2007 than the Rockies.
The Rockies were MLB's Cinderellas. They won 21 of 22 games from mid-September through the first two rounds of the playoffs against the Phillies and Arizona. They were swept by Boston in the World Series.
Tracy said, "The big message I got from the players during the latter part of May was basically this: 2007 is over with. One of the things that I had impressed upon them was the hard work that they had put in to establish the identity for themselves; they'd just surrendered that for whatever reason.
"The excitement that went into the latter part of the 2007 season, it just seemed it wasn't there anymore."
But it has returned. The fact the Rockies could pull off such an amazing run in 2007 has convinced this team it is capable of doing the same thing.
"The way Clint handled the [dismissal] allowed Jimmy the freedom to do what he needed to do," said O'Dowd. "Anytime you're the coach for a manager who's let go, it's a tough situation. Clint handled it with such grace and dignity."
That's fine, but what about the Xs and Os? Why has Tracy been such a difference?
"Strategically, he stabilized the bullpen with [left-hander] Franklin Morales and stretched out our starting pitchers. He challenged them to eat up innings and told them he wouldn't baby them. And they responded.
"Offensively, [the turnaround] coincided with us bringing up [left fielder] Carlos Gonzalez. Athletically and defensively, we began to come togther."
During the terrible start, the Rockies were weighted down by expectations, both collectively and individually.
"The managerial change allowed the players to relax a little bit," said O'Dowd. "I think we had hit rock bottom so bad they stopped worrying about anybody's perception of the team and their own numbers. They decided to just go out and play the game."
When the Rockies were struggling, GMs were calling O'Dowd, asking about some of his high-paid talent, such as pitcher Jason Marquis, who can become a free agent after the season. Marquis leads the staff now with a 14-8 record and 3.47 ERA.
Closer Huston Street has converted 33 of 34 save opportunities and has a 3.02 ERA.
"We liked our group from a team standpoint even when they were struggling," said O'Dowd. "We didn't come that close to trading any of them. When we got hot and started winning, it was more about trying to acquire bullpen help because we had been decimated by injuries."
About 15 players were part of the 2007 NL champions.
Tracy said this just-completed series with the Dodgers had all the pressure and intensity of October baseball.
He said they're handling the pressure and intensity fine -- and even embracing it.
It's almost as if they're telling each other, "Been there, done that."
"We're just hoping some of the guys who've been there can show the younger players the way," said O'Dowd. "If they don't worry about being in a pennant race, just show up and play the games, they'll be fine.
"But, if we expect to do things rather than just play the game, we'll fall in the race and not get in [the postseason]. It's not very complicated."
Now, it's off to San Francisco where the Rockies will face three of the best pitchers in the NL -- Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain.
This weekend should answer some questions about how legitimate the Rockies' chances of winning the West are. Not to mention the Wild Card.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.