By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007 4:19 AM
PHOENIX, Oct. 12 -- By now we must all believe that, regardless of the circumstances or the time of night or the fashion, a truism in baseball is that if the Colorado Rockies take to a field, they will win. Doesn't matter who they play, where it's staged, what the stakes are. We know now that they can, as they did Friday night, blow a ninth-inning lead on the road and win anyway.
Consider the absurdity of how the Rockies won for the 19th time in 20 games. They fashioned a winning "rally" in the 11th inning with a spinning infield single that didn't pass the pitcher's mound and three walks, the last with the bases loaded. In the playoffs, however, style means little, and the substance was there on the scoreboard at Chase Field: Rockies 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 2, and a commanding two-games-to-none lead for Colorado in the National League Championship Series.
"We just got to keep it going," first baseman Todd Helton said. "And ride it a little longer."
Two more wins in this series, and then -- gulp -- four in the World Series? Right now, it all appears possible to the Rockies, who got the key four-pitch walk from center fielder Willy Taveras to take the lead in the 11th. Thus, they have won eight straight, including all five of their playoff games. If you listen to them, though, it's almost by happenstance.
"We didn't draw it up to win the first five," Manager Clint Hurdle said.
But they did, and they head back to Denver -- which will host an NLCS game for the first time ever -- with clear control of this series. The Diamondbacks must win two of three in Colorado to ensure the series returns to Arizona next week. The Rockies, meantime, can win mundane, grind-it-out decisions such as the 5-1 victory in Game 1, or they can handle events such as Friday's 4-hour, 26-minute fiasco that ended at 11:47 p.m. local time -- nearly 3 a.m. on the East Coast, where the key components in the winning rally, Arizona closer Jose Valverde and Taveras, are scarcely known.
Yet they were the characters who decided this outcome, with a clear assist from Arizona Manager Bob Melvin. Perhaps the leading candidate for the NL's manager of the year award, Melvin stuck with Valverde in the 11th until he had thrown his 42nd and final, fateful pitch.
But first, rewind a bit. The Rockies entered the late innings with a 2-1 lead, and it appeared as if it would hold up -- particularly when Taveras, who had been inactive since Sept. 8 because of a strained leg muscle, made a spectacular, parallel-to-the-ground catch of Tony Clark's shot to right-center with two outs in the seventh. The ball looked as if it would be a double off the bat, one that would have easily scored Eric Byrnes with the tying run. But Taveras's grab had reliever LaTroy Hawkins thrusting both hands into the air, and with the way the Rockies have been going, who could blame them for thinking the game had been saved?
"That's his game," Hawkins said. "That's what he brings to the table, just that speed."
After Brian Fuentes worked a scoreless eighth, it was up to closer Manny Corpas to get the final three outs. But with one out in the ninth, he hit Young with a 1-2 pitch, a mistake that started a rally. Stephen Drew followed with a single to center, and Young took third.
Throughout the game, the Diamondbacks had come up with poor at-bats in such situations, and they were 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position at that point. As it turned out, however, they didn't need a hit to tie it.
Byrnes, the third-place hitter, was next, and he skidded a grounder to second. Colorado's Kazuo Matsui hastily shoveled the ball to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, but the rushed exchange was high. Even with a perfect toss, it's doubtful Tulowitzki could have gotten the ball to first in time for a game-ending double play. But the high toss meant Tulowitzki hung onto the ball, and Young scored to tie the game.
The strange part: Drew assumed he had been retired, but Matsui's throw had actually pulled Tulowitzki off the bag. Drew was safe -- but he didn't realize it. He started heading back to the dugout, and was easily tagged out in between second and third, a play that would have stood out for its embarrassing qualities had the Diamondbacks not, somehow, tied the game.
So they trudged to the 11th. Valverde had already worked a perfect 10th, striking out the final two men. But after pinch hitter Ryan Spilborghs reached on the infield single -- one that looked like a bunt but wasn't -- things started to unravel. Valverde got Tulowitzki to fly out, then walked Brad Hawpe, and then got a pop-up from Yorvit Torrealba.
"He had thrown a lot of pitches," said Jamey Carroll, the next hitter, "and he was kind of losing his command a little bit."
Valverde got two strikes on Carroll, but Carroll waited him out, drawing the walk that loaded the bases. No one was up in the Arizona bullpen even though Valverde had thrown 38 pitches, when his high for the year was 32.
"You gotta keep him in there," Melvin said. "He's the closer. ... You gotta at least go with your best until they get a run."
Well, they got a run -- because Valverde couldn't find the plate. "I wanted to be patient," Taveras said, and he never saw a strike. The four-pitch walk drove in Spilborghs. When Ryan Speier worked a perfect bottom half of the inning, the Rockies had found yet another way to win -- and found themselves halfway to the World Series because of it.