IF THERE were a victory that suggested divine forces at work, it would be Colorado's last Saturday. The number 29 jersey of Mike Coolbaugh, the Rockies minor league coach killed by a foul ball (SI, Sept. 24), hung in the Colorado dugout during BP. Coolbaugh's impossibly adorable sons, five-year-old Joey and four-year-old Jake, threw out ceremonial first pitches. Right before the game started, the temperature suddenly dropped about 20�, into the mid-50s, and the wind began gusting to 30 mph. In the bottom of the first the lights went out (a computer malfunction was the explanation), causing a 14-minute delay. Then the Rockies played airtight baseball for three hours, winning at home despite scoring fewer than three runs. The last time they did that? July 9, 2005.
You can pick almost any spot on the calendar over the past three weeks to illustrate what a jaw-dropping surprise it is to see Colorado four wins from the World Series. After all, the Rockies spent 100 of the regular season's 183 days in fourth place. On Sept. 17, an off day, they could take pride in having the league's best record over the last three months. Still, they were stuck in fourth, five games out of a wild-card berth.
The next day, however, veteran first baseman Todd Helton hit a walkoff home run to complete a doubleheader sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He got a standing ovation from his teammates in the clubhouse, and suddenly all things seemed possible. "From then on, we just took it one game at a time," said Francis. "Did I just say that? O.K., but it's amazing how that can work."
It was fitting that Helton struck the momentum-starting blow; it helped set a course for his first postseason appearance of a fine 10-year career. Nine months earlier his future in Colorado had been in doubt. Helton owns one of the few extravagant contracts doled out by frugal ownership—he makes about $16.6 million, or roughly 30% of the $54.4 million payroll—and he was on the trading block, with the Boston Red Sox in aggressive pursuit of the five-time All-Star. Eventually the Rockies stopped shopping him, but Helton admits he was hurt.
Amid the popping of corks and the eye-stinging squirting of suds last Saturday, at least a half-dozen teammates said how "happy I am for Todd." But Helton isn't particularly emotional, and Colorado is that rare team that functions without a single focal—and vocal—personality. "They don't want a slogan or a manager always making the grand statements," says manager Clint Hurdle. "Many times I just get out of the way and let them run things, and they tend to make good decisions."
The leader-in-waiting is clearly Tulowitzki, who epitomizes the undersung Rockies. One TBS promo that highlighted the outstanding young players in the postseason did not even mention the 22-year-old, a Gold Glove--quality defender who hit 15 homers and had 61 RBIs after the All-Star break. When Colorado was slumping in mid-May, Tulowitzki called out his team, saying that he was tired of losing. "There's a lot of guys I can learn from in this locker room," he says, "but if I have something to say, I will say it."
Tulowitzki fits comfortably into the All-American, strapping-jock template that constitutes the meat of Colorado's lineup. Third hitter Holliday (6'4", 235 pounds) was a legendary schoolboy athlete in Stillwater, Okla., a latter-day Mickey Mantle who had signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Oklahoma State. Cleanup hitter Helton was a QB at Tennessee before being replaced by a guy named Peyton Manning in 1994.
Tulowitzki's own second sport was basketball. As a high school senior at Fremont High in Sunnyvale, Calif., he nailed a 35-foot buzzer-beater to win a quarterfinal game in the sectional tournament, and he believes he could have played Division I hoops. But baseball was his clear calling, and the Rockies took him with the seventh pick of the absurdly deep 2005 draft, which included Justin Upton ( Diamondbacks), Alex Gordon ( Royals), Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Jacoby Ellsbury ( Red Sox), each of whom has already made an impact at the major league level. The player to whom the 6'3", 205-pound Tulowitzki is often compared is another strapping shortstop with a steadying presence, Cal Ripken Jr.
It is premature, of course, to compare a rookie, even one with his own rhythmic Coors Field clap—too-LOW! (clap-clap-clap) too-LOW! (clap-clap-clap)—to the Iron Oriole, just as it's premature to consider Colorado an NLCS favo....
Actually, it's not too early for that. Offensively, defensively, psychologically and karmically the Rockies have that "team of destiny" look to them. No other team remaining in the postseason is on a roll that's as exhilarating, magical and splendidly incomprehensible.