Playing It Cool, Rockies Stay Hot

Matt Holliday is welcomed back at the dugout after his solo home run in the eighth inning capped the scoring in the Rockies' 4-2 victory.
Matt Holliday is welcomed back at the dugout after his solo home run in the eighth inning capped the scoring in the Rockies' 4-2 victory. (By Jim Mcisaac -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 3 -- Each team was introduced full-bore Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, from the 25th man to the coaching staff, all lining up on the base lines in a formal setting. Each seat was full, each fan was equipped with a towel to wave, and a national television audience awaited as baseball's postseason got under way.

Thus, the pressure was finally off the Colorado Rockies.

"I felt totally different," Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said afterward. "I felt relaxed -- and confident."

The first foray into the playoffs for almost all of the Rockies began with a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of a National League Division Series that helped introduce this brash bunch -- absent from nearly everyone's postseason prognostications three weeks ago -- to the rest of the nation. Colorado scored three runs off Phillies ace Cole Hamels in the second, received six strong innings from lefty Jeff Francis, got a solo homer from most valuable player hopeful Matt Holliday and won for the 15th time in 16 games.

"Crazy," said Helton, who has spent all 11 of his seasons with Colorado but played in his first postseason game. "You have to go back to high school for something like that."

In high school, the stakes never approached what they have been for the Rockies in each game over a 2 1/2 -week span. On Sept. 15, they were in fourth place in the National League West. So they decided not to lose. All right, maybe once -- but not more than that. Playing in that kind of caldron -- which culminated in Monday night's wild-card tiebreaking win over San Diego, a 13-inning affair in which the Rockies trailed by two runs with three outs to go -- made the actual playoffs seem sort of droll.

"The last couple weeks, if we lost a game, we were done," right fielder Brad Hawpe said. "I guess you can say it's a relief. . . . If we lost this game, we still were playing."

In that lovely, relaxed atmosphere, Francis took the mound and dismissed his two miserable starts against the Phillies this season, outings in which he allowed 14 runs in 8 1/3 innings. He took the playoff excitement in this city -- which waited for 14 years for a return to the postseason -- and dismissed it immediately, striking out the first four men he faced. The first Phillie to hit the ball fair against the 26-year-old was center fielder Aaron Rowand, whose grounder to short was something of a celebration for the sellout crowd of 45,655.

The Phillies scored more runs than any team in the National League this year, an average of 5.5 per game. Yet through four innings against Francis, they managed just a walk and a single from Hamels, striking out seven times.

"That's pitching," Rowand said. "That's how Maddux does it. That's how Glavine does it. He knows how to pitch. When he's not leaving balls in the middle of the plate, he's tough."

Hamels, conversely, was coming off an eight-inning outing in which he shut off the Washington Nationals, a game the Phillies badly needed in their come-from-behind quest for the NL East title. But in the second inning, he looked badly out of sync. "He probably left some of his off-speed pitches over the plate," third baseman Garrett Atkins said, "and we got 'em."

The first was crushed by Helton to left-center, and it caromed away from Rowand long enough for Helton to end up on third. Atkins followed with a hard double to left on a curveball, and Hamels was off on a 40-pitch odyssey. By the time he struck out Holliday to end the frame, he had allowed three hits, three walks and three runs -- and the Phillies were in a 3-0 hole.

"Nothing can really prepare you for what this situation is like," said Hamels, a 23-year-old in his second big league season. "Especially with that second inning that I had, with the crowd going like it was -- loud -- and those guys getting hits and runners on and walking guys, it's just something that now I understand."

He seemed to learn quickly, retiring the next 12 men he faced. The Phillies' hitters, though, didn't adjust as well. While Helton and Atkins approached their first postseason at-bats calmly, the Phillies' best hitters struggled. Among Philadelphia's top four in the order, three players -- shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard -- could be considered MVP candidates. Yet those three, along with second-place hitter Shane Victorino, went 0 for 15 with nine strikeouts.

"I think some of our hitters might have been a little uptight," Philadelphia Manager Charlie Manuel said.

The Phillies managed back-to-back homers from Rowand and Pat Burrell off Francis to start the sixth. But they collected just four hits on the day; in 81 regular season games at tiny Citizens Bank Park, they had fewer than that just three times.

Utley struck out three times against Francis and once against setup man Brian Fuentes, just the second four-strikeout game in a career that is now 577 games old. Howard struck out three times in his four at-bats, and he argued vehemently with home plate umpire Dale Scott after being called out on strikes against closer Manny Corpas to start the ninth.

"I don't know why anybody's panicking," Howard said. "I'm not panicking. I'm chillin'."

Which is, of course, exactly what the Rockies were doing Wednesday afternoon, a day they didn't absolutely, positively have to win -- but did anyway.

"We had fun," Holliday said.

Why wouldn't they? The pressure's finally off.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company