Catch as catch can

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

PHOENIX – The Catch – the one that most of the country missed because it regards the National League championship series as baseball's version of must-flee TV, and, yes, the one that most certainly deserves an upper-case C – should have been a double. It should, by all reasonable measures, have landed deep in Chase Field's right-center field gap and left its pursuer, Willy Taveras, in a dejected lump on the ground.

What should be, however, isn't, not when it has to do with the Colorado Rockies, who over the last month have turned the NL on its head, their own history inside out and, in Friday's case, a double into a spectacular catch.

Taveras' dead sprint, about 125 feet over a dozen strides in 5 seconds, put him in position to dive and save Tony Clark's potentially game-changing seventh-inning drive. And four innings later, with Game 2 of the NLCS tied, Taveras' bases-loaded walk against Arizona Diamondbacks closer Jose Valverde drove in Ryan Spilborghs for the game-winning run in Colorado's 3-2 victory.

The Rockies celebrated well past midnight local time while the Diamondbacks left dejected, fully aware that no team has lost consecutive home games to start a seven-game league championship series and recovered, and equipped with the knowledge, too, that the Rockies have taken their foot off the throttle and replaced it with a brick.

No team ever has put together a late-season run like Colorado, which has won 19 of its last 20 games, 10 consecutive on the road and one this Friday thanks to a guy who, prior to this series, hadn't played in nearly a month.

To convince Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd that his balky right thigh had recovered well enough to merit a roster spot, Taveras went to the Rockies' instructional league team in Tucson, Ariz., filled with minor leaguers, and played center field.

"They weren't worried too much about my hitting," Taveras said. "They were worried if I'm healthy enough to be able to run."

Sounds funny now, huh?

Taveras didn't run to catch Clark's shot off LaTroy Hawkins that came with two outs, the speedy Stephen Drew on first base and Colorado clinging to a 2-1 lead. He burst like an Olympian, his arms chugging, his legs digging, his head barely moving, his eyes tracking the ball, his mind trying to calculate whether he actually might have a shot at it.

"Even when I stand up, I said, 'How did I catch that ball? Look at how far I am,' " Taveras said. "I see what happened, and it was great."

Similar sentiment permeated the stadium. Hawkins, his jaw slackened, thrust his arms skyward. The legitimate sellout crowd of 48,219 pressed its internal mute button. When shortstop Troy Tulowitzki called out the defensive signals before Clark's at-bat, he shaded Taveras toward left-center because Hawkins throws 95 mph and planned on working the outside corner. Clark, batting left-handed, pulled the ball.

"Everybody went, oh, that's a double," said Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who limited the Diamondbacks to one run over five innings. "It's unbelievable. He's so fast."

All the Rockies tried to wrap their arms around how the 25-year-old Taveras covered half the field without a Segway, or a jetpack, or something other than his legs. So, too, did Diamondbacks catcher Chris Snyder, who tipped his cap during Taveras' next at-bat, and Clark, who needled Taveras at first base about committing robbery.

"I don't know if we have another guy in this club that makes that play," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "I don't know how many guys in the league can make that play."

"Actually," Spilborghs said, "I would like to think I catch that ball, too."

Yeah. Bet he would.

"I could watch it over and over," Spilborghs said. "I can watch that all day. I'll watch it again now."

The television in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse replayed the catch for what seemed like the hundredth time, even if it did happen only an hour earlier. The highlights then jumped forward to the 11th, when Valverde, the NL leader with 47 saves, entered his second inning.

Arizona had tied the game in the bottom of the ninth off Colorado closer Manny Corpas and turned to Valverde, who locked down the Rockies in the 10th. Only three times this season, though, had Valverde pitched more than an inning, and after Spilborghs' infield single and walks to Brad Hawpe and Jamey Carroll, Valverde had thrown 38 pitches, six more than his season high.

Still, Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin stuck with Valverde, and for that he was rewarded with a four-pitch walk, all fastballs, none close. In the Rockies dugout, they yelled for Taveras, never the most patient guy, to lay off until Valverde threw a strike. Third-base coach Mike Gallego flashed take signs on the 2-0 and 3-0 pitches. A night after scoring the go-ahead run in Game 1, Taveras won Game 2 with an RBI.

He had come into the series so worried.

"They were doing great without me," Taveras said.

He wondered whether Hurdle should keep him on the bench.

"I wouldn't have blamed him," Taveras said.

Then again, spitting at convention have the Rockies, who had made the playoffs once and lost in the first round prior to this season, on the cusp of the World Series. In July, they brought up Jimenez despite his 5.85 earned-run average at Triple-A. He has been a revelation since, culminating his season Friday with six strikeouts, all on fastballs – one at 96 mph, one at 98 mph, three at 99 mph and another at 100 mph.

And then there's Spilborghs, who also started the season in Colorado Springs, and Ryan Speier, his Triple-A teammate who notched his first major-league save in Game 2. The Rockies are not just Matt Holliday and Todd Helton, together a combined 2-for-16 in this series.

On Dec. 12, the Rockies acquired Taveras, Jason Hirsh (the solid rookie starter out with a broken leg) and long reliever Taylor Buchholz from Houston for pitcher Jason Jennings. The Rockies loved Taveras' speed, shown off a season earlier, in Game 4 of the NLCS, when St. Louis' John Rodriguez crushed a ball to center field. About 430 feet from home plate at Minute Maid Park, in the field of play, sits a hill, which Taveras navigated without incident to haul in Rodriguez's shot. Taveras made it look easy and remembers it as such because he has a new favorite catch.

"This one," Taveras said.

Like Spilborghs, Taveras spent the postgame admiring it on TV. He sat at a table in the clubhouse's lounge with Hawkins, the two of them noshing, laughing, gawking. Hawkins wore a sharp red shirt and tie. Taveras still was in his baseball skivvies, ice packs latched onto both of his thighs by Ace bandages that were wrapped around him like a pair of shorts, and he needed to eat quickly. The Rockies' plane would be leaving soon.

Taveras was in no hurry. That would be his easiest catch of the night.

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