Rockies rise from bottom

NL champs 5th team to finish last, reach Series next year

October 17, 2007|By Kevin Baxter | Kevin Baxter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- Reliever LaTroy Hawkins doesn't want to think about it "until I'm fishing, first week of November."

Outfielder Matt Holliday has been thinking about it too much, which is why his stomach has been in knots for a month.

And backup outfielder Ryan Spilborghs said the whole idea is so farfetched it reads like a fairy tale. But it's true: the Colorado Rockies are going to the World Series.

Only that's not the part that stretches the imagination. It's how the Rockies got there that's truly unbelievable.

Three times in the final week of the regular season they were a loss away from elimination. Twice they were a batter away. And once they were only a strike away.

Yet, somehow, they found a way to persevere, winning 13 of their final 14 games in September, rallying to beat the San Diego Padres and Trevor Hoffman, the game's most successful closer, in a one-game tiebreaker to reach the postseason, then sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks once they got there, becoming the first team in 31 years to win its first seven playoff games.

"Every out's been important. Every pitch has been important," Holliday said, his head dripping with sparkling wine as he stood in the middle of a raucous Rockies clubhouse early yesterday morning.

"It's hard to believe. It didn't seem that possible. But we stayed with it, kept fighting. It's hard on your stomach from time to time. But it's a lot of fun."

Add it up and the Rockies have won 21 of their past 22 games, making them the first National League club to put a streak like that together in more than seven decades.

Yet none of it came easy, not even in the playoffs. Of the 18 runs Colorado scored in the National League Championship Series, 17 came with two outs. And if you go back a game-and-a half into the Division Series, 24 of the Rockies' past 28 runs have been scored with two outs.

Their long-maligned pitching staff has been amazing, though, giving up a bit more than two earned runs a game in the postseason, continuing a run that saw them post the league's best ERA since the All-Star break.

Yet through it all the Rockies say they never looked up, never looked at the streak. With their backs to the wall virtually every day since the streak started Sept. 16, they couldn't afford to.

"It happened so fast," said left-hander Jeff Francis, who tied a franchise record with 17 regular-season wins and has won twice more in the postseason. "Right before it started we knew we had to do something special to get in the playoffs.

"It's been our philosophy all year [to] just take one game at a time.

"And we happened to do it. Night after night someone else was coming through."

Left-hander Mark Redman, who didn't even have a job a week before the streak started, won two games down the stretch. Brad Hawpe hit game-winning homers twice in the span of three days. Reliever Ramon Ortiz, who had one perfect outing all season, delivered it in the 13th inning of the tiebreaker with San Diego, earning him his only win as a member of the Rockies.

Reliever Matt Herges, in the minors in July, gave up only two hits in 17 scoreless innings through his win in Game 4 of the NLCS. And center fielder Willy Taveras, who played only 10 regular-season games after Aug. 10 and sat out the division series, scored the winning run in the NLCS opener and drove in the winning run in Game 2.

"I don't think there's anybody in there who hasn't contributed," manager Clint Hurdle said.

"This may never happen again. You look at your history books. How many times has it happened so far?"

Well, considering seven of Colorado's wins have come in the postseason, the answer is never. But that's not the end of the history because the Rockies are only the fifth team to finish last one season and reach the World Series the next. They're the sixth team to fall nine games below .500 and rebound to win a pennant in the same season.

And they're the only team to have been two games out of a playoff berth with two games to play, only to finish the season with a league title.

If there was one key moment in the streak, Holliday said it came three games in, when the Rockies' focus was simply on getting out of fourth place in the division. Trailing by a run and down to their last strike against the Dodgers and All-Star closer Takashi Saito on Sept. 18, the Rockies got a two-run, walk-off homer from Todd Helton.

"If you want to say there was a signature moment, that might be it," Holliday said. "Obviously there had to be a lot of great moments and a lot of big contributions. There has to be a countless number of big situations and big plays.

"But that really stands out to me. That was a huge win for us."

And now the Rockies face one final test in the World Series, against an opponent still to be determined. Yet whoever it is, that opponent might not be the biggest challenge Colorado faces. Because they made such quick work of their NLCS playoff foes, the Rockies must wait eight days before playing again, the longest break before a World Series opener in history.

But considering the franchise waited 15 years to get to the World Series, having to wait an additional eight days to play there doesn't seem all that bad. After all, they still have some acclimating to do.

"That just don't even sound right," Hawkins said when asked how it feels to have "Colorado Rockies" and "National League champions" in a sentence.

"It hasn't had a chance to sink in. But we're not done yet."

Kevin Baxter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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