A New Landscape For These Rockies

Phillies fans may have seen their team at home for the last time this season.
Phillies fans may have seen their team at home for the last time this season. (By Jim Mcisaac -- Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Friday, October 5, 2007

PHILADELPHIA The Colorado Rockies are in a place right now that, quite possibly, no other baseball team in history has ever visited, not the Miracle Boston Braves of '14 or the '51 New York Giants of Coogan's Bluff, not the '78 New York Yankees when they were 14 1/2 games behind or the '04 Red Sox when they trailed three games to none in the playoffs yet ended up world champions.

The Rockies don't want you to know what they are feeling, the heights they've climbed without knowing how or the sense of the miraculous that envelops them -- as long as they don't examine it too closely and jinx the whole thing. They don't even want you to know that they know what's happening to them; they're playing dumb, hiding behind their mask of cliches. You can't blame them even though the glint of secret knowledge peaks out around the edges of every word they say.

Invisible is best.

"If we keep winning, people might take a little more notice. I don't really worry about whether they know who we are or not," said National League batting and RBI champion Matt Holliday, the Rockies' core star. "After the season's over at some point you can reflect back and it will be hard to believe. In the midst of it, we're trying to be focused on the next day and the current game. We have to keep playing the right way and see where it takes us."

Because, heaven knows, the Rockies never dreamed it could take them this far. Their torrid streak of 16 wins in 17 games, including a 10-5 walloping they handed the Phillies on Thursday to take a two-games-to-none lead in their Division Series, is their private inexplicable experience. Even though the whole sports world discusses them every day, it is almost exclusively at the ludicrously shallow level of, "Well, can you believe that -- those lucky not-very-good Rockies won again."

That, of course, is a huge part of why the Rockies are so remarkable -- they are fairly good, with the best record in the NL since May 1, but they are not some powerhouse that has suddenly caught fire -- like the '51 Giants, '78 Yanks or ' '04 Red Sox. Those are perhaps the game's most legendary comeback teams, but all were packed with players named Mays, Jackson or Schilling. And their streaks were either many weeks long -- allowing the occasional loss -- or, in the Red Sox case, just four amazing games packed into a few blurred days of post-midnight play and intercity travel.

What the Rockies have done falls exactly between. They built a streak that stretches the boundaries of what even the best teams can do, stay almost unbeaten for three weeks, yet they've done it at precisely the time when nothing less would suffice.

Perhaps these Rox are most like the '14 Braves, who finished in last place, 31 1/2 games behind in '13, and were still 11 1/2 games out of first place the following July when they suddenly started winning, winning, winning and finished first by 10 1/2 games as America noticed, perhaps for the first time, that baseball specializes in the truly (almost) impossible.

"I don't know that we sat there and thought, 'Oh, man, our only chance is to win the rest of the games,' " Holliday said. Yet, every year, there are teams at the end of their pennant-race rope who could still amaze themselves if they ended the season 13-1, won a one-game playoff for the wild-card spot, then jumped out with two wins to start the playoffs. But none ever has until now.

The Rockies don't want to analyze their success, or even internalize it too completely, as long as they can continue to ride this ridiculous benevolent monster, hurtling toward a culmination they don't even allow themselves to quantify. Maybe they're headed to a World Series trip that will shame all the sport's other improbabilities. After all, they were in fourth place in the National League West, five games out of the wild card on Sept. 17. Some sport-addled math professor somewhere is going to crunch the numbers on that and she'll nearly run out of decimal points in computing the odds.

Or maybe, by next week, because every ballplayer knows that winning streaks tend to turn, instantly and viciously, into losing streaks, that they will have lost three in a row to the Phils, torn up their ticket to the NL Championship Series and crashed back to their humble Rockies roots. Soon, surely, they will realize that, with one more victory, they will meet the extremely beatable winner of the Diamondback-Cubs series, the former outscored for the season, the later possessed of only 85 wins. What happens on the day when they awake and think, "Hey, look, this glass slipper almost fits."

What the Rox are absolutely sure of, and that others don't grasp, is that these playoffs are the easy part. This postseason is, comparatively, a lark. You can actually lose a game, or even more than one, and not see your season come to an instant end.

"We've been in the loser's bracket for a month, so this is a little bit of fresh air for us," said Manager Clint Hurdle. His words were chipper, but his expression was hard. In any tournament the "loser's bracket" means lose-once-and-go-home. In another sense, the Rockies have been in baseball's loser's bracket since their franchise was born.

One playoff visit -- ever. In that series, just one win. Never a season remotely as good as this year's modest 90-73 mark. They know they're baseball's rabble gatecrashers. When Hurdle and GM Dan O'Dowd were given contract extensions on Opening Day, after six seasons with a best record of 76-86, fans thought the team had Rox in its head. After yesterday's slaughter, the Phillies must now head to Colorado for two games in howling Coors Field where, in less than a month, the Rockies have gone from being mildly embraced to rapturously adored. "There were some loyal fans who had faith in us all season," Holliday said. "But the sellouts, the crowds going crazy, that's probably been the last couple of weeks."

The Phils will take an indelible impression with them cross-country after this game. The Rockies second and third hitters of the game, Troy Tulowitzki and Holliday, hit back-to-back homers, both on the first pitch they saw. Second baseman Kaz Matsui, who has only 17 homers in 1,380 career at bats, broke the game open with a grand slam in the fourth inning and, against all logic, bashed a double off the center field wall and a triple off the 398-foot sign in right field. Asked if, in his days as a star in Japan, he had similar days, Matsui said, through a translator: "It is not a comparison. Today was like the best. So exciting."

In fact, among their eight extra base hits -- three homers, a triple and four doubles -- the Rockies hit a ball either off or over every posted distance sign in Citizens Bank Park, except the right field corner. That 334-foot mark was spared the battering. What are the odds? But then, that's the question to ask about everything the Rockies do.

"I don't think it's crazy," Hurdle said. "I think it's part of a sport that's difficult to comprehend when you're not involved in it." So, he's had other comparable experiences? "No," he said. "I've never been part of anything like this."

If this Rox show somehow lasts another couple of weeks, neither will anybody else.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company