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These mountain men are lying in wait

The National League champion Rockies have been a sweeping success this postseason, beating the Phillies and Diamondbacks. The National League champion Rockies have been a sweeping success this postseason, beating the Phillies and Diamondbacks. (REUTERS)

The American League champion will be running into a buzzsaw unprecedented in the history of late-season major league baseball. Yet the Colorado Rockies, who've merely gone 21-1 in their last 22 games, will undoubtedly be underdogs in the World Series, just as they were in the National League Division Series against the Phillies, whom they swept, and the NL Championship Series against the Diamondbacks, whom they also swept.

They have not played a real baseball game since Oct. 15 - intrasquad scrimmages don't count - and they've lost only one real baseball game since Sept. 15. They have a largely unknown cast of characters, due to the fact that they were basically deemed unworthy by the national networks until the networks could no longer avoid them. And they have paid the networks back with the two sweeps, while also performing a national service in ending those ever-annoying "Frank TV" promos on TBS.

How do the Rockies do it? With timely pitching, timely hitting, dependable fielding, and a lot of good old-fashioned luck. They were one pitch away from getting eliminated in the regular season, but the Brewers' Tony Gwynn Jr. tripled off San Diego closer extraordinaire Trevor Hoffman in Game 161 to help give Milwaukee an extra-inning win. The Brewers then came through again in Game 162, beating the Padres, 11-6, while the Rockies were taking care of the Diamondbacks. That forced a one-game playoff for the wild-card berth.

"Let's face it," said Colorado slugger and MVP candidate Matt Holliday, "we do owe a lot to the Brewers."

They were down by two runs in the bottom of the 13th to San Diego in the wild-card play-in game, facing Hoffman, who only is the leader in career saves. Holliday tripled in the tying run, then scored the winning run with a headfirst slide into home. He still can't say for sure if he ever touched the plate. But, more important, the umpire said he did. End of story.

In five of the seven playoff games, they have held their opponent to two runs or fewer. They were the best fielding team in major league history over the course of 162 games; baseball fans are going to absolutely love rookie Troy Tulowitzki, who committed only 11 errors in 834 chances for a major league-leading fielding percentage of .987 for shortstops. Todd Helton, the first baseman, has won three Gold Gloves and has not committed an error since the Rockies were in Boston June 14.

Their pitching staff had the best ERA in baseball (3.86) over the second half of the season. Likely Game 1 starter Jeff Francis won 17 games, matching the best total in franchise history. Alas, he also has the only Colorado loss since Sept. 15, the Sept. 28 home defeat to Arizona. He is 2-0 in the postseason with a 2.13 ERA. The staff ERA against the Diamondbacks was 1.89 and, for the postseason, a stingy 2.08. The bullpen's postseason ERA is an even stingier 1.61.

Have you noticed we have gotten this far and neglected to mention the Rockies' offense? Well, it ain't what it used to be, with homers leaving thin-air Coors Field in big numbers. That's in part because the baseballs get placed in a humidor before they're put into play. Six NL teams hit more homers than the Rockies. The days of Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, and Vinny Castilla are long gone. Holliday put up MVP numbers (36 HRs, 137 RBIs) and two others had triple-figure RBI seasons (third baseman Garrett Atkins with 111 and right fielder Brad Hawpe with 116).

When the Rockies were productive and prolific in the 1990s - and led the majors in attendance their first seven years out of the chute - the fireworks often came at the expense of something more crucial - victories. Prior to this astonishing run, the Rockies had made one playoff appearance in franchise history, losing to Atlanta in four games in 1995. Ten of their 14 seasons had resulted in losing records, including all four under current manager Clint Hurdle. They wasted a ton of money on free agents (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle to name two) who didn't pan out. They were 13th in the NL and 23d in the majors in attendance in 2006, when they lost 86 games, and improved their attendance only slightly this season (11th in NL, 19th overall).

"You build a good offensive team, you'll send a lot of players to the All-Star Game," said Hurdle, who pushed internally for a philosophical shift away from what the Rockies had been doing. "You want to win late and play late, you need to have a team that can pitch and a team that can play defense. That wins championships. All you've got to do is pick up the old books and read. And the plan was put in place, and it's taking patience and it didn't work right away. We've got some good things in place and we don't feel like this is just a one-time thing. We feel like we're establishing a foundation for years to come."

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