Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rockies can thank Gwynn Jr. for improbable hot streak


Tony Gwynn must be so proud of his son, Tony Gwynn Jr. (As long as he can put his San Diego allegiance to the side for a minute).

If not for his boy, the Hall-of-Famer wouldn't have gotten to commentate on one of the greatest stories baseball has witnessed in years.

The elder Gwynn is an analyst for TBS, which broadcasted the National League Championship Series. On Monday Gwynn, among others, witnessed an amazing spectacle in a chilly Mile High City. When precocious rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki threw out Arizona's sliding Eric Byrnes, the Colorado Rockies were headed to the World Series.

Yes, the Colorado Rockies. For the first time in the franchise's history.

Now Colorado has eight days off before traveling to either Boston or Cleveland for the World Series. The Rockies should use the 192 approximate hours to call the younger Gwynn and offer thanks. If not for him, there wouldn't be pandemonium in the streets of Denver. There wouldn't be a historic 21 wins in 22 games. There would just be Broncos talk in the football-crazy city.

Oh, thank heavens for Tony Gwynn Jr., religious general manager Dan O'Dowd must be thinking.

The day was Saturday, Sept. 29, and the setting was Milwaukee's Miller Park. The Brewers had nothing to play for. The night before their postseason hopes had been dashed when their loss to the Padres combined with the Cubs' win over the Reds had clinched the NL Central for America's most beloved loser. The Brewers' dream season was over. They'd have to wait until next year.

The Padres, on the other hand, needed just a single win to clinch the NL Wild Card. Their win on Friday spliced with Colorado's loss to Arizona had them up two games on the Rockies with two to play.

And then they were within a single strike of the playoffs. The bubbly was ready in the visitor's clubhouse. In Denver, the Rockies who played later that night were prepared for the inevitable: another missed playoffs, their 12th in a row.

But then one moment in time, one sharp crack of the bat, one arc of the ball — changed everything. Everything.

Gwynn Jr., in his only at-bat against his dad's former team, laced the game-tying triple in the bottom of the ninth inning. Two frames later the Brewers got the game-winning hit for a 4-3 victory...

And the rest is history. History in the making, I should say.

Another Colorado win and San Diego loss the following afternoon set up a one-game playoff at Coors Field. Then, on that Monday night, magic seemed to be in the air as the Rockies rallied with three runs off baseball's all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, for a thrilling, exhilarating, never-leave-your-seat-for-the-bathroom 9-8, 13-inning victory.

Little did the Rockies know, that wouldn't be their most exciting Monday of October.

What followed was a sweep over the high-octane Phillies, which made the naysayers realize just how good this Colorado pitching staff is. Then came the four-game sweep of the Diamondbacks, when everything seemed — and did — go right for the Rockies.

As a sportswriter, I'm schooled not to throw out cliches such as "team of destiny," but this bunch of youngsters fits the name way to well. Given the opportunity to play in October, this team embraced it. And, needless to say, have made the most of it.

But the players never dwelled on their success. Never thought about it too much. As NLCS MVP Matt Holliday said, most of the clubhouse talk has revolved around the well-being of everyone's fantasy football teams.

When the players took the field each night, however, they were all business, and they played about as flawlessly as a team can play. They weren't spectacular. They didn't fit the bill of past Rockies teams — lots of hitting, little pitching. No, this team — over the past three weeks — has been the paragon of a winning baseball team.

Stellar starting pitching. Great relief pitching. Timely, clutch hitting. And, not to be forgotten, tremendously sound fielding.

The Diamondbacks were not far behind the Rockies in all four games. It was just a big hit here, an Arizona error there, a great play by Tulowitzki here (he made about 27 difficult plays from his position at shortstop), a Manny Corpas save there.

As is usually the case when a team advances in October, there wasn't a star. Rather, every player who stepped on the field contributed, such as Seth Smith, who hit the pinch-hit, two-run blooper down the left field line Monday night that gave Colorado a 2-1 lead it wouldn't relinquish.

For much of the 21-of-22 streak, the Rockies have downplayed their accomplishment. When asked about it, they've shook their heads and smiled. It's unexplainable, they explain. It's just one game piled on top of another.

But you could sense on Monday, after Holliday's three-run home run in the same inning as Smith's hit gave Colorado a 6-1 lead, that the Rockies were starting to understand the enormity of their feat. They could no longer act as if things were normal, as if they were involved in "just another game." They knew they were making history.

It showed in their impatiences the rest of the night. Hurried at-bats. Poor swings. They didn't come close to scoring another run. And it almost came back to bite them, as Arizona cut the score to 6-4 in the eighth and brought the tying run to the plate in each of the last two inning.

But in the end it was the Rockies, once again — although nervously this time — adding another win onto their amazing run, a win that will stand a little taller than the rest. A win that has them four more wins from championship glory on this incredible journey.

The most improbable of journeys. The type of journey which is why people follow sports. Why it's never smart to leave a ballpark early or give up on a team prematurely (even if they need help from another team to make their dreams come true).

I could name all the records that the Rockies have set, but I'm sure they've already been ingrained in your noggin. The one that stands out to me is that Colorado is the first team in baseball's long history to reach the World Series after trailing by two games in the playoff race with — yep — a lone two games remaining.

It could be said that on Sept. 29 the Rockies were down to their final strike, one whiff away from another October on the golf course. But then Tony Gwynn Jr. saved their season, lifting them into the air of possibility.

And they haven't come down since.


Sportsattitude said...

I don't think most of America realizes just how close the Rockies came to being spectators of the Fall Classic rather than participants. In Philly, we were living and dying with each pitch in multiple games as the Wild Card continued to look like the best way the Phils would enter the post-season so we were aware of what was going on in other cities, and perhaps under the big spotlight of the World Series the media will "back-up" a bit and focus on events like your post features which opened the door for Colorado to make their run.

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