DENVER – He walked into a baseball morgue. The afternoon Seth Smith joined the Colorado Rockies, not even the best nurse could have located a pulse. So when they started winning – and winning and winning and winning – Smith walked up to the veterans in the Rockies clubhouse and, beaming all the innocence of a 25-year-old rookie, posed a question.
"Is this what pro ball is always like?"
No, this is not what pro ball is like. It is nothing like this. It is not easy and it is not drenched in Domaine Ste. Michelle and it is not full of 25-year-old rookies slicing game-changing hits that send 50,213 packed in Coors Field into a simultaneous conniption. What the Rockies did in finishing their four-game National League championship series mercy slaying of the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 6-4 victory Monday is the antithesis of pro ball: a left-for-dead team continuing a run so incredible – and so improbable – that more than 70 years have gone by since something like it.
The Rockies have won 21 of 22 games on their way to the World Series, including seven straight to start the postseason. The last team to go on such a post-Sept. 1 jag was the 1935 Chicago Cubs, who won 21 straight, and the only other group to start a postseason with seven consecutive victories was Cincinnati's 1976 incarnation of the Big Red Machine. Heavy company for a team that languished in fourth place in the National League West on Sept. 16 only to run roughshod through the NL playoffs as the wild-card entrant.
"You start smelling things," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "And everything starts smelling right. Things started happening the way they happen. Defining moments pop up. You start talking about doing good things late. Guys show up. Everybody involved. Everybody involved."
Like Seth Smith. He finagled his way onto the postseason roster with five pinch hits in eight at-bats following his call-up the day the streak began. With the Rockies down 1-0 in the fourth inning of Game 4, Hurdle sent him to the tunnel adjacent to the dugout to take a few practice cuts before pinch-hitting for starter Franklin Morales. Less than a minute later, he stood in the batter's box, runners on second and third with two outs, a world away from the Triple-A atmosphere to which he had grown so accustomed.
Quickly Diamondbacks pitcher Micah Owings got two strikes on Smith, and the at-bat seemed doomed when Smith swung at an 87-mph fastball on his fists. Only the ball floated down the third-base line, over Mark Reynolds' head, in front of Eric Byrnes, out of Stephen Drew's reach, the typical Rockies hit: a soft-landing dagger that marked RBI Nos. 1 and 2 in Smith's big-league career.
Three batters later, after a Conor Jackson error and Kazuo Matsui run-scoring single, Matt Holliday dug in against Owings, a rookie starting for the first time since Sept. 27. Holliday, the MVP candidate, frothed at Owings' 2-2 pitch, a corpulent slider, and blasted it 452 feet to dead center field, pushing the Rockies ahead 6-1.
First came the Seth blow. Then came the death blow.
"I'm just kind of scratching my head," Owings said. "I've never seen anything like it."
No one born after World War II has, either. On Sept. 16, the first day of the streak, the Rockies spent more time celebrating first baseman Todd Helton's 300th career home run and six promising shutout innings from rookie Franklin Morales than entertaining the idea that this could thrust them back into the NL playoff race.
"We knew we were a good ballclub, but just knowing you're a good ballclub and actually going out and doing this is two different things," Helton said. "We actually walked the walk."
With small steps first. One win became two in a row, which turned into three straight, and before the Rockies knew it, they had vanquished 11 straight opponents. Never mind that starting pitchers Aaron Cook, Jason Hirsh and Rodrigo Lopez were damned to the disabled list, leaving ace Jeff Francis surrounded by a pair of rookies, Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez, and longtime sultan of mediocrity Josh Fogg. The Rockies could hit, they fielded better than any team in major-league history and cracking their bullpen was like trying to open a walnut with bare hands.
When the Rockies beat San Diego in a one-game wild-card playoff, they looked dangerous. When the Rockies ousted Philadelphia in the division series, they looked frightening. And when the Rockies finished embarrassing Arizona in the NLCS, they looked like a legitimate choice to beat Boston or Cleveland in the World Series, even if they do come from the inferior NL.
"I doubt we'll ever be the favorite, which is fine," Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs said. "We'll be the favorite in our own clubhouse. All that matters is what goes on in here, and these guys think we're going to win every single game.
"You just don't go on streaks like this."
No, you really don't. And you just don't win games in so many fashions. More had been made of Smith backing up Eli Manning as quarterback at Ole Miss than of his pinch hitting, so he consulted with his former coach, David Cutcliffe, on how to answer those questions.
"If Eli played baseball," Smith said, "he'd be my backup."
Catcher Yorvit Torrealba started the season as a backup for the Rockies. He won Game 3 with a three-run home run. Center fielder Willy Taveras spent most of the last month on the disabled list. He saved Game 2 with an incredible diving catch and drove in the winning run with a bases-loaded walk in the 11th inning. Throughout the postseason, the Rockies have relied on their no-names as much as their big ones.
And like that, they revived baseball here. In 1993, their first year as an expansion franchise, the Rockies drew almost 4½ million fans to Mile High Stadium. Outside Coors Field on Monday, makeshift entrepreneurs bought cheap plastic brooms, affixed a Rockies decal above the bristles and sold them for a tidy profit.
"There's just no reason why a team like us can't come in and take baseball by storm for a month and a half like we have," said Francis, who will start Game 1 of the World Series, "and there's really no reason why we don't have as good a chance as anybody at winning this thing."
That opportunity dangling, Hurdle went with Manny Corpas at the end of the eighth inning to clean up Brian Fuentes' mess. Fuentes yielded a three-run home run to Chris Snyder, who in one swing equaled the number of runs scored on the Rockies' bullpen this postseason in its previous 26 innings.
Corpas, the rookie reliever, was appearing in his seventh consecutive game and 15th of the 22. With Chris Young on second base following a broken-bat double, Corpas threw three consecutive balls to Drew. On the fourth pitch, Drew swung and popped out, bringing up Byrnes.
Boos cascaded. Even with their team one out from its first World Series, the fans could not forgive Byrnes for insinuating between Games 2 and 3 that the Diamondbacks actually had outplayed the Rockies. No matter the numbers, their boos said, no one is outplaying the Rockies right now.
Torrealba went to the mound to calm Corpas. Home-plate umpire Tom Hallion came out to break up the meeting. Helton, for 10 years a victim of the Rockies' mediocrity, pounded his glove. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the rookie touched by Midas and the team's conscience, swayed.
"I just know I wanted it hit to me," Tulowitzki said.
Byrnes obliged with a sharp ground ball to his backhand. Tulowitzki scooped the ball, fired it to Helton and beat a face-first-sliding Byrnes by an arm's length. As the Rockies stacked on each other like a Napoleon, Byrnes flopped in the dirt, an apt metaphor indeed for the Diamondbacks.
The rest of the evening devolved into a big party. Bubbly. Beer. Standard fare for a team that is anything but – and one that, all of a sudden, has become the most interesting in sports. Major League Baseball, so worried about television ratings that it rejiggered the World Series schedule so it will start on Oct. 24, a Wednesday, feared the idea of a championship series featuring Colorado.
"We play aggressive," Hurdle said. "But there's a calmness to 'em, a professionalism to 'em, a … "
From behind, three players dumped a giant tub of ice water on Hurdle. No longer did people remember all those years of futility. This was a team, a historically great team, and as the thought occurred to Hurdle, he shook himself like a wet dog and let out a deep shiver.
The morgue was dead. Long live the Colorado Rockies.
- Clint Hurdle