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Peak performance

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

DENVER – When was the last time Todd Helton jumped that high or screamed that loud?

When was the last time Coors Field – normally as empty and airy as the open plain – became a black-and-purple pleasure palace, more than 46,000 people wildly cheering under a cloudless late-September sky?

For Helton, who has played 11 stoic seasons for the Colorado Rockies at a Hall-of-Fame level yet never in a single postseason game, the answer would be never.

For the Rockies, think back to 1995, the only year they made the playoffs in their 15-year existence. Interest in baseball steadily waned as the team got progressively worse, but there's nothing like an improbable winning streak capped by a meaningful game on the last day of the season to perk up the locals.

Count Helton among them. The first baseman bounded and shrieked his way across the infield after stretching to his limit and catching a throw from closer Manuel Corpas to complete a 4-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday that will enable the Rockies to play another day.

"That was exciting, just unbelievable," Helton said. "But we haven't finished it. It all comes down to tomorrow."

The Rockies already knew that the San Diego Padres had blown an early lead and lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 11-6, and that by winning, the Rockies would force a one-game playoff against the Padres on Monday to determine the National League wild-card team.

The Padres' game began one hour before the Rockies took the field in search of their 13th victory in 14 games. Scoreboard-watching, normally a no-no, has rarely been so brazen.

"I only looked at it 3,482 times," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "Whenever the ball wasn't in play."

Rockies rookie right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez set down the Diamondbacks in the first inning to the backdrop of the manual scoreboard that read Padres 3, Brewers 0, notching two of the 10 strikeouts he would accumulate in 6 1/3 innings.

The back-and-forth battle out of town was more captivating than the scoreless game on the field for five innings. Rockies second baseman Kazuo Matsui grounded out to lead off the third inning – and the crowd stood and roared approvingly.

The Brewers had just gone ahead, 5-4.

The Rockies' next batter, Troy Tulowitzki, struck out and the crowd leaped to its feet and became delirious with joy.

It was 6-4 in Milwaukee.

There was still the not-inconsequential matter of the Rockies scoring a run themselves, and they broke through in the sixth when Brad Hawpe followed a walk to Garrett Atkins with an opposite-field double.

Moments later, the Padres' deficit grew to an insurmountable 9-4, and the scoreboard-watching suddenly had less appeal than the action on the field.

To everyone except the Diamondbacks, anyway. Having won the NL West and secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs a night earlier, celebrating by guzzling $300 bottles of champagne courtesy of pitcher Livan Hernandez, this game meant nothing to them.

And after tying the score in the seventh, the Diamondbacks finally began playing that way. Third baseman Mark Reynolds made a throwing error to begin the eighth, and the Rockies seized the opportunity, scoring three runs, the last two coming on another double by Hawpe.

And although it got dicey in the ninth – the Diamondbacks scored twice against Corpas and put the tying run on base – the Rockies posted their 89th victory, six more than in any other season.

Before leaving the field, the players walked around the stadium throwing gift bags into the stands. The gesture has been a Rockies tradition after home finales, but in recent years it's had all the joy of tossing dirt on a grave.

This, however, was a celebration – and lo and behold, it's not the last home game after all.

Another celebration – and getting Helton to that elusive first postseason – will require beating Cy Young Award favorite Jake Peavy (19-6, 2.36 ERA) of the Padres. Josh Fogg (10-9, 4.79) is scheduled to start for the Rockies.

"We'll have to regroup and get ready for them," Helton said. "We'll have our work cut out for us. But we have confidence. How couldn't we? We've won every game but one the last couple weeks.

"It's time to let it out and enjoy every minute of it. It's that time of year."

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