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Hurdle has Rockies climbing new heights

Rookie righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up only one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings in Game 3 of the Rockies' NLDS sweep, is targeted by teammates in a postgame celebration. Rookie righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up only one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings in Game 3 of the Rockies' NLDS sweep, is targeted by teammates in a postgame celebration. (ED ANDRIESKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

DENVER - Clint Hurdle has played his hunches during the Colorado Rockies' incredible 17-1 streak, and almost every time they've been right.

Managing a mix of mostly young players and a couple of wily veterans, the sixth-year manager said he has listened as much to his gut as he has his coaching staff.

"Sometimes they work and sometimes it's indigestion," said Hurdle, Colorado's cutup commander who has guided the Rockies into their first National League Championship Series in the franchise's 15-year history.

Hurdle has been popping wads of bubble gum into his mouth way more than Rolaids tablets for the past three weeks.

In the wild-card tiebreaker against San Diego, he used 10 pitchers in the Rockies' nearly five-hour win and sent in pinch runner Jamey Carroll for slugger Garrett Atkins in the seventh. Carroll's sacrifice fly won it in the 13th.

His moves were magnificent in the Rockies' sweep of Philadelphia in the NL Division Series.

From letting ace Jeff Francis bat in the seventh before pulling him in the bottom half to save a position player, to pinch-hitting for Franklin Morales in the fourth inning of Game 2, which set up Kaz Matsui's grand slam, all his decisions have been golden.

The topper came Saturday night when pinch hitter Jeff Baker punched across the winning run with a two-out single in the eighth inning of the 2-1 clincher that set up Colorado's trip to the NLCS against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Game 1 is set for Thursday night in Phoenix.

Hurdle, meanwhile, has been quick to deflect any praise back onto his players.

"I never get outside of myself to think I'm a difference-maker," he said. "These guys are the ones who keep things in place."

Hurdle spent six seasons managing in the Mets' farm system from 1988-93 before joining the Rockies organization in 1994. He was into his sixth season as the club's hitting coach when he was promoted to manager April 26, 2002.

His first five seasons were marked by a diminishing payroll and declining attendance.

Last fall, team owner Charlie Monfort said he was inclined to allow general manager Dan O'Dowd and Hurdle to go into the final seasons of their contracts without an extension so they would be held accountable.

On Opening Day, Monfort stunned everybody - including Hurdle - when he authorized team president Keli McGregor to extend O'Dowd's deal for two years, and O'Dowd in turn extended Hurdle through 2009.

The Rockies hadn't had a winning season since 2000, and the extensions were heavily criticized.

"I think you have to keep faith in what you're doing," McGregor said recently. "We wanted results. They weren't there. But we kept doing what we thought was right. We had faith in it and that makes this even more special, when you believe and no one else does."

Hurdle gets a gauge on how he's doing during his "Saturdays at Starbucks" trips with his 4-year-old daughter Madison, who suffers from seizures and a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome that causes low muscle tone and morbid obesity, and other problems.

Fans have been known to walk up during this daddy-daughter time and criticize his moves that didn't work out. Those critics have had nothing to harp on lately.

"I get a lot of high-fives," Hurdle said. "A lot of them are shaking their heads and a lot of them are happy, they're truly happy."

After stumbling to a 17-25 start, the Rockies have had the best record in the NL over the past four months and are a major league-best 40-15 at home since June 2. Their 11-game winning streak to get back into the wild-card race last month was the longest in team history and the longest in the majors this season.

Slugger Matt Holliday credited Hurdle for not changing things during a 1-9 trip in June.

"We didn't stop believing in ourselves," Holliday said, "and neither did he."

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