By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007
PHOENIX, Oct. 11 -- The opening game of the National League Championship Series was, to that point, a pedestrian affair, and the crowd assembled Thursday night at Chase Field seemed to treat it much as the country has -- the junior varsity matchup, one about to be overshadowed by Boston and Cleveland on the American League side.
But just when there appeared to be no sizzle, here came Arizona Diamondbacks rookie Justin Upton, barreling into second base. There went Colorado Rockies second baseman Kazuo Matsui, tumbling to the ground, a play ruled interference. And here came all manner of litter -- plastic water bottles, mostly -- onto the outfield, with boos following.
The play in the seventh inning hardly determined the outcome of the Rockies' thorough 5-1 victory over the Diamondbacks in Game 1. Colorado left-hander Jeff Francis, who threw 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, had far more to do with that, because he out-pitched Arizona ace Brandon Webb, the reigning NL Cy Young award winner. Francis's performance, in which he allowed seven hits and one walk, will be the one they talk about Friday morning in Denver, because it keyed -- get this -- the Rockies' 18th win in their last 19 games.
"He's definitely one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball," Colorado first baseman Todd Helton said of Francis. "Definitely the most unknown. But we have confidence in him every day."
Forgive the Rockies for having confidence in anybody who takes the field for them right now, because regardless of the circumstances -- even in Thursday's hostile environment -- they thrive. Brad Hawpe's two-out, two-run single keyed a three-run third against Webb, and the Rockies got three double-play balls when they needed them most.
The last, though, brought the most intrigue, and it is the one that will likely overshadow Francis's performance -- keeping the 26-year-old from Vancouver in relative obscurity, even though he won 17 games in the regular season and is now 2-0 in the playoffs. By the time Francis pitched in the seventh, the Rockies were already up by four runs. But when Chris Snyder opened the inning with a double and Francis followed by hitting Upton with a pitch, the crowd of 48,142 sensed a rally for one of the few times all night.
Diamondbacks second baseman Augie Ojeda faced Francis with no outs, and he smacked a ground ball to third baseman Garrett Atkins, who swiftly threw to Matsui, covering second. Matsui easily made the forceout as Upton closed.
"I did what I was supposed to do," Upton said.
What he did was go in hard, sliding directly into Matsui.
"When I slide, I put one hand down, and then I pop up," said Upton, the 20-year-old former No. 1 pick in the draft called up in the middle of the year. "That's what you're supposed to do."
Matsui appeared prepared to eat the ball, because Ojeda runs well. But at the end of the slide, Upton rolled to his left, out of the baseline and toward Matsui. He appeared to try to throw his body and arm into the second baseman.
"I thought it was a good, hard slide," Helton said. "I thought at the last second, he just took it a little too far."
That, too, was the determination of second base umpire Larry Vanover. Though Matsui was still holding the ball, Vanover pointed at Upton, then pointed at first base. He called Ojeda out as well because of Upton's interference, a double play that severely impacted the Diamondbacks' chances to come back.
"Once he got to the base, I thought he threw his hip up into the guy, and his intent at that point is not to get to the base," Vanover told a pool reporter, citing rule 7.09 (f). "To get real simple with it: Is his intent to go to the base and get on the base, or is his intent to crash into the pivot man?"
Vanover ruled the latter. Arizona Manager Bob Melvin argued vigorously, and Upton said he told Vanover that he was "close enough to the bag." No matter. The boos then came from what had been a placid crowd. "It definitely gave us a little adrenaline," Arizona center fielder Chris Young said. The debris followed, bit by bit, until Colorado Manager Clint Hurdle came onto the field and asked the umpires if he could remove his team from it.
"We get tired of having water bottles thrown on the field, that's all," Hurdle said. "It's just, there comes a point in time where you need to make a point that enough's enough."
The delay lasted five minutes. The Diamondbacks loaded the bases on an infield single from Jeff Cirillo that hugged the base line -- and drove Francis from the game -- and a walk of Young by reliever Matt Herges. But left-hander Jeremy Affeldt came on to get Arizona shortstop Stephen Drew to fly harmlessly to right to end the inning, and the most active part of the evening was over.
"It was definitely a momentum-changer," Helton said, "and we'll take 'em any way we can get 'em."
Which is how the Rockies have been winning all these games, in any manner possible. Their only loss since Sept. 15 was, in fact, to Webb and the Diamondbacks. Now, they have dismissed that demon, limiting Webb to a six-inning outing in which he gave up four runs, though he said he was pleased with how he pitched.
"It's tough luck," Webb said. "There's nothing you can do about it."
The Rockies, meanwhile, appear to be making their own luck. "This is a special run," Hawpe said. There is no telling when -- or if -- it will end. Cy Young winners or water bottles, the Rockies roll with, and over, everything.