By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
DENVER, Oct. 16 -- The police cars that blocked off Blake Street were one indication that something was different early Tuesday morning here, with the Rocky Mountains in the distance. But the next indication came when one of those cars drove off, its lights twirling around. And then, over the loudspeaker, came an officer's voice: "Rockies! Rrrrrrrrrrockies!"
The revelers -- many of whom had been reveling for hours -- cheered. There is something special when a city reaches the finals of a given sport for the first time, which the Colorado Rockies did with Monday night's 6-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, completing a sweep in the National League Championship Series. Before late Monday, Denver had enjoyed trips to six Super Bowls and had won two Stanley Cups. But there was something different about this trek because, as longtime Coloradoan Vinny Castilla said amid the champagne: "No one can believe it. It's unbelievable."
Athletes -- even retired ones such as Castilla, a former third baseman who's in the Rockies' front office -- say those kinds of things all the time when they reach the air in which the Rockies now dwell. But in this case, it is true. It is not to be believed, because believable things have usually occurred before. This has not, not in these circumstances. Whatever happens in the World Series -- in which Colorado will face either Cleveland or Boston -- the Rockies are making history.
"We're not going to try to figure it out," third baseman Garrett Atkins said late Monday night, in the bedlam on the infield at Coors Field. "We're just going to enjoy it."
Consider, first, why this is historic:
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only five teams in the last 70 years have won 21 of 22 games. The Rockies have now done that in a stretch that spans 15 crucial games at the end of the regular season, then their first seven games of the playoffs. No team had ever pulled off such a run when the games included some played in October.
Since division play began in 1969, only one other team had opened its postseason with seven straight wins -- the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, the "Big Red Machine" that swept the then-best-of-five NLCS and then the World Series. That's 204 playoff teams in those 38 postseasons, and two that began with a seven-game winning streak. The Rockies' winning streak, overall, is 10 games.
Last year, the Rockies shared last place in the NL West. Only four teams had ever gone from last place in their division to the World Series the following season. Add another.
Now, the incomprehensible portion of the program, the circumstances they faced along the way:
On Sept. 15, the Rockies were not only in fourth place in the NL West -- trailing the front-running Diamondbacks by 6 1/2 games -- but they were 4 1/2 games back in the NL wild-card race. So they won 13 of their final 14 regular season games.
On Sept. 28, they snapped an 11-game winning streak with a 4-2 loss to the Diamondbacks, the decision that clinched a postseason berth for Arizona. With two games left in the regular season, they trailed the San Diego Padres by two games in the wild card. One Rockies loss to Arizona or a Padres win over the already eliminated Milwaukee Brewers, and San Diego would have owned the wild card.
But on Sept. 29, Colorado won, and the Rockies gathered in the clubhouse to watch the final innings of the Padres and Brewers. With two outs and a man on in the ninth, San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman -- the all-time saves leader -- tried to protect a one-run lead and faced a pinch hitter named Tony Gwynn Jr., the son of Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Gwynn tripled, tying the game, and Milwaukee won in 11 innings. The Rockies lived.
Two nights later, with the Rockies hosting the Padres in a one-game tiebreaker to determine the wild card, Hoffman entered in the bottom of the 13th with a two-run lead. Coming into the game, Hoffman had made 60 appearances on the season and had allowed as many as three runs exactly once, back in April. Yet the only out Hoffman recorded was on Jamey Carroll's game-winning sacrifice fly -- one that followed two doubles, a triple and an intentional walk -- and the Rockies advanced to the postseason.
"It's got to be an ESPN Classic, I would think already," Manager Clint Hurdle said.
By Monday night, with the sweep of the Diamondbacks in hand, the Rockies had enough material for a week's worth of classics.
"I feel like it's going too fast," right fielder Brad Hawpe said. "I want to slow it down. I feel like I'm going to forget all this, and there's nothing about it that I don't want to remember. I want to remember it all."
The final victory over the Diamondbacks seemed comparatively mundane. Colorado took a 6-1 lead in the fourth -- first getting a bloop two-out, two-run double from rookie Seth Smith, who had never driven in a run in the majors, then benefiting from an error by Arizona first baseman Conor Jackson. Two batters later, left fielder Matt Holliday -- the most valuable player of the series -- drilled a 1-1 slider from Micah Owings to center for a three-run homer. The Rockies, of course, withstood the Diamondbacks' late rally, and won yet again.
Earlier in the postseason, Hurdle spoke of one of his messages to his team: "Be in awe of nothing. Respect everything."
The Rockies, right now, are deserving of more awe and respect than anyone thought possible a month ago. At this rate, it might last generations.