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Rockies insist 'we're still underdogs'

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. – Eventually, Troy Tulowitzki would have to leave the on-deck circle. At some point, they would make him.

The grounds crew was going to have to rake there. The snows would come. He'd get hungry.

He held out as long as he could, unwilling to let them take 2007 away. The Boston Red Sox had run the Colorado Rockies out of their first World Series in four games, and were falling all over themselves in the damp October air, leaving the bat in Tulowitzki's hands.

He just stood there, refusing to be carried out with the rest of the Rockies.

Four months later, he'd lost a few pounds, put on $31 million (and a gleaming black Maserati), and the memory of the at-bat that didn't come remained vivid enough.

"It's history," he said. "But, you want to be on the field celebrating."

Well, the Rockies are back, and looking a lot like the team that grew up in September, finished off the National League in October and stood pat for the winter. By the looks in their eyes and the angles in their shoulders, they've grown weary of that sort of talk, the attempts to measure what a couple months might do for a franchise that had never before amounted to much.

But, they admit, there is something tangible here, where winning was once a thought but neither a process (at least not one anyone recognized) nor an outcome. They were simply the team that played in that nutty ballpark, that brought the humidor from the cigar shops into the mainstream, that hit bombs at home and, well, bombed on the road.

It would take a special group, an unusually gifted and secure team, to make anything of that park and that altitude and that payroll. It arrived in the dark of night, of course, much to the surprise of the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, and then the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"I enjoyed it," Todd Helton said of an offseason that passed quickly. "The beers were a little colder."

He raised his hand, wishing to rephrase that.

"You can say 'the Coca Colas' for the young folks," he said, smiling.

By a Wednesday afternoon at the start of spring training, after they'd put in their time in an exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox, the Rockies were no longer the club that had gone nine years in fourth or fifth place, or that would never find a pitching staff capable or fearless enough to match their park, or that was years away – again.

Still young, still generally underpriced, still banking on developing arms and bats, the Rockies are now hardened by the six weeks in which they had to win every night, and did. They leaned on each other though all those nights, and kept hitting, and pitched, and very few of them buckled. It's why they should win the NL West for the first time in their history, that and the offense that no one else in the division can come close to.

Jeff Francis, their soft-spoken, soft-bodied ace, insisted these were the same Rockies, the same guys who'd arrived in mid-September with 72 losses, and the same guys who finished September with 73. No amount of champagne and hugs and fawning would change that.

"The Rockies, as a team, are feeling the same way," he said. "We're still underdogs, even being the National League champs."

It's not true, of course. None of it. Other than the part about being NL champs. They changed second basemen, and that's it. They lost their heralded dragon slayer from the rotation, which shouldn't harm them at all, but cleared room for three far better arms in Jason Hirsh, Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. They are not underdogs, even in a division in which their stiffest competition picked up the likes of Dan Haren (Arizona) and Andruw Jones (Los Angeles), and in which the San Diego Padres twice gave the ball to Trevor Hoffman with a chance to end the Rockies' season in September.

The Rockies are above that, clinging to the underdog pressure valve. That is, assuming their big September didn't convince them that every September holds that same opportunity. Because they don't. And while none of the top four teams in the West has 95-win potential, but, neither, presently, does one have 85-loss potential – there's too much pitching for that. So, they might as well accept what's out there, and believe other teams will take pleasure in beating them, and act accordingly.

"There's a little different attitude," Helton said. "A lot of guys got seasoning. We knew a lot of guys are going to be back. And I think that helps out."

That daily assumption – "Expect to win day in and day out," Helton said – is primed by another idea, one born in September and October.

"We know we have a good enough team," he said. "There's expectations, there's no doubt about that. It's something new for us. But, I think it's a good thing, too. To do what we did last year, there had to be a lot of belief."

Eventually, they had to know, they'd be asked to back it up with more. So, they gathered in the desert, and relived a few of the grander moments, and grabbed their gloves. Tulowitzki got to pick up a bat again. And then Francis got it just right.

"People want to see us do it again," Francis said. "They want to make sure it wasn't a fluke."

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