DENVER – Give it up for the National League West. The division that gave us Barry Bonds' controversial home run record chase, the Arizona Diamondbacks' unlikely ascent and the Los Angeles Dodgers' peculiar infighting, saved its most riveting drama for last.
In a teeth-gnashing tiebreaker for the NL wild-card berth, the Colorado Rockies defeated the San Diego Padres 9-8 in 13 innings Monday night, providing a pulsating playoff prelude as well as a convincing state-of-the-West declaration.
Isn't there room in the postseason for both of these teams?
Matt Holliday scored the winning run (or so said umpire Tim McClelland; replays showed that catcher Michael Barrett might have blocked the plate) on Jamey Carroll's sacrifice fly to right field, capping a three-run rally against all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman and sending a capacity crowd at Coors Field into mile-high delirium and the Rockies to their first postseason since 1995.
Moments earlier, in the top of the 13th, the Padres had taken an 8-6 lead on a two-run home run by Scott Hairston, a late-season acquisition in the lineup only because of Milton Bradley's memorable manager-inflicted knee injury two Sundays ago.
Hairston coming through was improbable. The Rockies coming back against Hoffman after being held scoreless the previous six innings was implausible.
Or was it?
"The best part about this team is, we never quit," said Holliday, drenched in champagne, his chin red with blood from the head-first slide into home plate, or the vicinity thereof.
"It stings from the bubbly," he said. "It's a great sting."
Holliday also had a bloody left hand after getting spiked by Barrett, and the Padres might point to the gash as proof the hand never touched home plate. But there's no replay in baseball, otherwise a double off the top of the left-field railing by the Rockies' Garrett Atkins in the seventh inning that appeared to be a home run might have been the difference.
Maybe it was destiny that this team wouldn't stop now, not with 14 victories in its last 15 games and the best won-loss record in the NL (72-46) since May 22.
"We knew we were going to win it," Atkins said. "Even with Hoffman out there, even down by two, we just knew. I can't explain it any other way."
The crowd of 50,284 stood and swayed and stayed while the Rockies romped on the field. And there might have been smiles from afar as well. No one could have enjoyed the exhausting battle more than the Philadelphia Phillies, who host the Rockies in Games 1 and 2 of the division series, beginning Wednesday.
Momentarily diverted from thanking the baseball gods for the New York Mets' majestic collapse, the Phillies must have watched with glee as the Rockies used 10 pitchers and spent a month's worth of emotion.
Some guys discovered emotions they weren't sure they had. First baseman Todd Helton, even-keeled while performing tremendously through so many losing seasons, let loose Sunday when the Rockies beat the Diamondbacks to force the tiebreaker.
He celebrated all over again after dropping the dubious distinction of having played in more games (1,577) without reaching the playoffs than any active player besides Damion Easley. Helton reveled in the champagne-spraying ritual, then quietly joined his wife and daughter for hugs.
"It just an awesome thing to be a part of," he said. "I never knew it could feel this good."
The Padres came in somewhat smug with Cy Young award favorite Jake Peavy matched against the decidedly average Josh Fogg. Yes, the Padres had lost two straight to the Milwaukee Brewers to force the tiebreaker, but manager Bud Black sat in the visitor's dugout two hours before the first pitch and said matter-of-factly, "Momentum has a direct relationship to your starting pitcher."
In other words, sit back and watch Peavy do this.
Problem was, Peavy must have left his mojo with the money clip he lost in Milwaukee. The Rockies pecked away for six runs in 6 1/3 innings, including home runs by Yorvit Torrealba and Helton.
Fogg, nicknamed the "Dragon Slayer" because he'd beaten Brandon Webb, Chris Young, Derek Lowe, Roy Oswalt, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina this year, was no better than Peavy, surrendering a grand slam to Adrian Gonzalez in a five-run Padres third inning.
After four innings, the Dragon Slayer turned back into a frog, er Fogg, and Rockies manager Clint Hurdle went to the bullpen repeatedly, using his best relievers before the game reached extra innings. The Rockies led 6-5 in the eighth, but Holliday misplayed a fly ball by Brian Giles and the ball sailed over his head for a double that scored the tying run.
Nobody will remember, though, thanks to the 13-inning rat-a-tat-tat against Hoffman – a double by Kaz Matsui, a double by Troy Tulowitzki, a triple by Holliday, and, after an intentional walk to Helton, the short lineout to right by Carroll.
And just like that, a team mired almost exclusively in fourth or fifth place from April 17 through September 18, that finished fourth or fifth every year since 1997, was in the playoffs.
"It's tangible evidence, it's credibility within the baseball community, in Denver and with our fans," said Hurdle, who notched his first winning season in six as manager. "We were patient with our young players because it was the only sane way for us to operate. The biggest thing was having the courage to hold onto our patience.
"We took models of successful teams in similar markets, the Oakland A's and the Minnesota Twins, studied how they went about their business. It's one of the biggest reasons we were able to hold fast and stay with our plan through tough times."
Let Jeff Kent whine and Luis Gonzalez pout in Los Angeles. Barry Bonds can ride out of San Francisco on his asterisk. It was all quite entertaining. But the NL West belongs to the Diamondbacks and the Rockies, teams that successfully integrated a raft of young players with select veterans.
The Padres are somewhere in the middle, going home feeling like failures despite getting admirable production from a patchwork lineup.
"We fought hard and came up short," a somber Adrian Gonzalez said. "You have to hand it to the Rockies. They just wouldn't take no for an answer. You really have to admire that."