The streaking Rockies make their first appearance in the NL Championship Series on Thursday night when they meet the Diamondbacks in Game 1 at Chase Field.
Colorado has won 17 of its last 18 games entering this series. The lone loss was to Arizona and ace Brandon Webb on Sept. 28, a defeat that allowed the Diamondbacks to clinch the NL West crown at Coors Field.
The Rockies recovered to win the final two games of that series, and defeated San Diego in a one-game playoff for the NL wild card to earn the franchise’s second-ever postseason berth. They followed that with a three-game sweep of Philadelphia to advance for the first time in team history.
“It’s been worth the wait,” Colorado manager Clint Hurdle said. “Because you don’t ever know if you’re going to get there. But you gotta keep following the course. You gotta have faith. You gotta have faith that sometimes is blind and you just keep holding on and you keep moving forward and maybe there’s only a small group of you still doing it.”
The opponent will be a familiar one. Both teams hold spring training in Tucson, met to open the season and split their first 16 meetings before Colorado won the last two games of the season-ending series after Arizona secured the division.
“The two teams do know each other,” Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. “Eighteen times during the season, spring training. So it’s going to be about executing.”
The Diamondbacks, who won only 76 games last year, defied expectations by finishing with the best record in the league. They finished with the worst batting average in the NL at .250, but have used solid pitching, timely hitting and a team-oriented approach all season, including the recent sweep of the Chicago Cubs.
“You have 25 guys pulling for each other,” said Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes, whose total of just 83 RBIs led the club. “I’ve never heard one guy complain all year. We have guys who are ready to win. We’ve already exceeded expectation so far and we’re going to continue to do so.”
Both clubs are loaded with young talent. Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, drove in 99 runs and hit 24 homers—an NL record by a shortstop.
Arizona’s key players include second-year shortstop Stephen Drew, who went 7-for-14 against the Cubs, and leadoff hitter Chris Young—a rookie who hit a team-high 32 homers. The Diamondbacks also start two other rookies, third baseman Mark Reynolds and right fielder Justin Upton.
“With this team, everybody calls us young, but I think it’s the most exciting team I’ve been on,” said Drew, the younger brother of Boston’s J.D. Drew.
Colorado possesses the stronger lineup, and Matt Holliday and Todd Helton are big reasons why. Holliday won the NL batting title with a .340 average while Helton batted .320—reaching that plateau for the eighth time in his last nine years—en route to the first playoff appearance of his 11-year career.
That lineup should be tested when it gets another shot at Webb (1-0, 1.29 ERA), who allowed two runs over seven innings to top Colorado starter Jeff Francis in a 4-2 victory Sept. 28.
“We had a couple of opportunities against Brandon, didn’t get it done, which is very difficult to swallow against a guy his caliber,” Hurdle said. ” And it was by far and away I think the nastiest stuff we’d seen from him in some time. He got better as the game went on. He kept rolling the sinkers we kept rolling the ball on the ground.”
It was the only win for Webb, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, against the Rockies this year after going 0-3 with a 6.47 ERA in five prior starts.
The right-hander had problems with numerous Colorado hitters, particularly Brad Hawpe, who went 9-for-15 with three homers and 11 RBIs against him in 2007. Holliday was 6-for-19 (.316).
Webb also had trouble with Kaz Matsui, who went 8-for-17 this year to improve to 11-for-26 (.423) lifetime against the Arizona ace.
“He’s a great hitter,” Webb said. “He’s one of those guys, he’s a left-hand hitter, low ball hitter. He has power to pull to the side and be very selective in his pitch selection, too, that he swings at, and he goes the other way well.”
Webb showed few nerves in his first postseason start, yielding one run and four hits over seven innings in a 3-1 win over Chicago last Wednesday.
Matsui, meanwhile, was a key contributor in Colorado’s sweep of Philadelphia, going 5-for-12 with a grand slam and six RBIs. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba went 5-for-10 in the series.
Holliday, Tulowitzki and Helton were just a combined 6-for-37 (.162) in the division series. Helton, however, hit .375 against the Diamondbacks this year while Holliday batted .361.
Francis (1-0, 3.00) will get another chance to face Webb after yielding four runs and seven hits over six innings in the Sept. 28 loss. The left-hander is 4-0 with a 3.24 ERA in seven lifetime starts at Chase Field and scattered five hits in seven innings of a 2-0 victory there May 23.
“I had a good changeup working that day,” Francis said. “If tomorrow comes around, and it’s just not as effective as I need it to be, I need to go to something else.
“I can’t just go out and try to recreate what I did five months ago. It’s gotta be in the moment.”
Francis has limited Byrnes to four hits in 21 at-bats (.190) in his career, but Reynolds went 4-for-6 against him.
The Colorado ace won Game 1 of the Philadelphia series by allowing two runs and striking out eight over six innings in a 4-2 victory last Wednesday.
Arizona closer Jose Valverde had seven of his major league-leading 47 saves against Colorado this season. Valverde closed out each victory of the division series with a scoreless inning, conceding just one hit overall.
Game 2 is set for Friday at Phoenix.