"This season should put the serendipity of last fall into context."
The Rockies reached their first World Series only after a sequence of events more bizarre than the sight of a stuffed elk head in a shopping cart on a baseball field (more on that later). Four games under .500 as late as July 1, Colorado needed not just one but two of the most infamous pennant-race collapses of all time (by the Mets and the Padres), and every one of their 14 wins in their final 15 regular-season games, just to get into the playoffs, whereupon they promptly won another seven in a row.
The club's charmed 21-1 run ended with a World Series sweep at the hands of the Red Sox, but this season should put the serendipity of last fall into proper context. Either the franchise has turned a corner toward sustained excellence, or the Rockies might well join the likes of Vanilla Ice, Harper Lee, Johann Pachelbel, Bobo Holloman -- and every surprise pennant winner of the wild-card era, for that matter -- in the company of overnight successes without a follow-up act.
"I don't think we played nearly as well as we should have from start to finish," general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "Plus, this is still a very young club, unlike those other teams. This club is going to get better. The biggest difference is starting pitching."
Last season the Rockies gave a total of 49 starts to journeymen Josh Fogg, Rodrigo Lopez, Elmer Dessens and Byung-Hyung Kim, all of whom are gone. Now, beyond ace Jeff Francis, they will draw a full season from Ubaldo Jimenez, who contributed to a 51-30 second-half surge after being called up from the minors. The Rockies may regard veteran Aaron Cook as their nominal No. 2 starter, but the 29-year-old righty strikes out too few batters (3.3 per nine innings) and has yet to win 10 games in a season. Jimenez, 24, with an upper-90s fastball, was nasty in the postseason (2.25 ERA). "He has a chance to absolutely dominate every fifth day," O'Dowd says of Jimenez, who added 17 pounds in the off-season. "The issue is being able to command his pitches consistently, but there will be times when he dominates on pure stuff."
Jimenez calls pitching in the World Series "a dream come true." But he quickly adds, "Now I know I'm going to have to make adjustments as hitters get to know me." To adjust to the big leagues last year, Jimenez happily imported his father from the Dominican Republic to be his roommate. This year? He plans to have his mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew join them.
Colorado's clubhouse tends to evoke the same familial atmosphere. Forty-eight of the 61 players in camp were homegrown, and only three players on the 40-man roster were older than 32. The closer (Manny Corpas, 25), two MVP-quality players (Matt Holliday, 28, and Troy Tulowitzki, 24), two top starters, and seven of the eight everyday players and the entire projected bench are still in their 20s. "It really is like a fraternity around here," O'Dowd says, which explains the cautionary advice posted in the clubhouse during a flu alert this spring: wash your hands. avoid hands to mouth. know what you're kissing.
Such fraternalism was also on display when pitcher Casey Weathers wheeled the elk head with the four-foot antlers to the Rockies' spring training complex in Tucson one morning, part of the club's annual hazing of top prospects. Earlier in camp rightfielder Brad Hawpe had asked Weathers about the claim to fame of his hometown, Elk Grove, Calif., to which Weathers replied, "I don't know. Elk, I guess."
"Great," Hawpe said. "You've got 48 hours to get an elk here to camp."
Weathers, a closer from Vanderbilt with a 96-mph fastball that could help the bullpen in the season's second half, found his stuffed friend on loan from a Tucson taxidermist. Apparently the youthful Rockies have only just begun to have their fun. Says O'Dowd, "Last year changed this franchise. There's a difference between coming to camp hoping you can win and knowing you can win. This team knows it can win." -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 31, 2008