DENVER – Now, this wasn't his Jeter moment. Troy Tulowitzki, 23, big bat, scary arm, dancer's feet, baseball wired into his head as if through some fiber-optic cable, will have one of those, a play that amalgamates his brain and brawn and defines him the way the where'd-he-come-from backhand flip and faceplant into the stands did Derek Jeter.
No, this was too subtle for that, which is a surprise, because rare are the moments that Tulowitzki and subtlety meet. He draws the comparisons to Jeter, after all, because he roars with fire, chafes at indiscretion, bucks like a wild beast anytime something goes awry with his Colorado Rockies. And, yes, they undoubtedly are his. It is with little shame that the Rockies' elders defer to Tulowitzki, a rookie in name alone, and allow the shortstop to play captain for the hottest team the game has seen in years.
So the play. Third inning, Game 2 of the NLCS. Arizona's Chris Young has singled in a run to tie the game 1-1, and he takes off running. Young beats the throw from catcher Yorvit Torrealba, slides face first and appears to be safe. Second-base umpire Tom Hallion, however, calls him out. Tulowitzki, straddling the bag, had slid his left foot in front of it, like a catcher blocking the plate, prevented Young's hand from touching it and applied the tag to his helmet.
It took incredible savvy and dexterity to make the play, sure. It also took the disposition of someone willing to take a tangle of metal spikes in his shin were the slide feet-first.
"A lot of people shy away from contact, not getting hurt," Tulowitzki said. "It's something I might do later on in my career, but as of right now, I'm willing to take some shots, being young, and I think I can take it."
Shots have come his way, certainly. Tulowitzki ended up with a nearly foot-long scratch on his leg when St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein spiked him. He is quick to admonish such plays, and other indiscretions too.
In Game 1 of the NLCS, Rockies starter Jeff Francis hit Arizona's Justin Upton with an offspeed pitch – a sign that it was not intentional. Still, the 20-year-old Upton stared at Francis, which brought out the ire in Tulowitzki. The clean version of what he said: Go to first base, kid, before we give you a real reason to be mad.
"If I think someone's not playing the game the right way or doing something kind of cheap, I'm going to be the guy to say something," Tulowitzki said. "Guys should know when they're not doing things right on the field."
The Rockies allow Tulowitzki to consider himself baseball's conscience because he endears himself in so many other ways. The day Craig Biggio got his 3,000th career hit – against the Rockies – Tulowitzki told teammates that he probably had 2,000 hits from Little League on up. Soon thereafter, somebody placed a counter, made in blue marker, above his locker: 2,000.
Tulowitzki is now at 2,101, so many of those hits huge. He hit .291 with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs, and his defense could win him a Gold Glove. Though he's hitting just .190 in the postseason, the caught stealing and Upton call-out allowed the Diamondbacks to feel his presence in other fashions.
"They notice I'm doing something, which actually feels good, because sometimes I'm out there and it feels like I'm not doing anything at all," Tulowitzki said. "More than anything, guys know I'm behind them and if anything happens, I'll be there to stick up for them.
"You can't declare yourself a leader. Other people have to say, 'Hey, that's the guy we go to. That's the person who gets us going.' "
It didn't take long for Tulowitzki to establish himself as such. The Rockies familiarized themselves quickly with Tulowitzki's man-crush on Jeter and bought him a few bottles of Jeter's signature cologne, "Driven." Unlike Jeter, polished and pretty and starlet magnet, Tulowitzki cuts a messier figure, one that screams Everyman and encourages the ribbing.
"We know who he is, and you have to respect that," said utilityman Jamey Carroll, who showed his respect by taping a photocopy of a captain's C to Tulowitzki's batting-practice jersey, mostly to mock him, partially to recognize what he does.
"Then," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said, "you just throw in the fact the way he shows up, how he shows up, the interaction on the mound, the interaction with the outfielders, making sure they know what time it is and what's going on. He's just really embraced the game and embraced the leadership role that has made us a better club.
"I've never seen this type of performance."
Early in the season, Hurdle said he stopped expecting things from Tulowitzki. The rookie jitters were gone, and day after day, he kept getting big hits and going deep in the hole for balls he had no business reaching and flabbergasting teammates and opponents alike.
Sometimes, Tulowitzki walks up to a struggling pitcher and, rather than yell at him or bellow words of encouragement, he just smiles. It's infectious, because the pitcher can't help but smile back and forget the jam, if only for a moment.
The kind of moment that, for now, describes Troy Tulowitzki just fine.
- Troy Tulowitzki