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On Short Notice
IF THE Rockies learned anything last season, it's that every Magical Mystery Tour comes to an end. From pennant winner to division straggler in less than nine months, Colorado quickly experienced the flip side of being the hottest team in baseball.
It's hard to pinpoint when the bottom dropped out. But here's one possibility: During an 18--17 victory over the Marlins last July 4—a game in which the Rockies staged a nine-run comeback, the largest in franchise history—manager Clint Hurdle yanked struggling Troy Tulowitzki from the lineup in a double switch. Furious with his skipper, the shortstop slammed his bat in disgust. The bat splintered and sliced open a cut on Tulowitzki's right palm that would require 16 stitches, landing him on the disabled list for the second time that season.
It was the lowest of lows for the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, one of the heroes of the Rockies' storybook run to the World Series. In the span of a year Tulowitzki went from front man for a team on the rise, batting .291 with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs, to scapegoat for a sub-.500 club in the weak NL West, hitting .263 with eight homers and 46 RBIs.
"There was a realization on his part last year that the game is very hard," veteran first baseman Todd Helton says of his teammate. "Once you feel like things are going really good, this game can turn around and kick you right in your butt."
Tulowitzki, 24, admits he might have taken on too much in 2008. "I felt like I had the weight on my shoulders," he says, "and I let the team down." How quickly he rebounds is the key question this spring, because Hurdle is counting on Tulowitzki to fill the large shoes of Matt Holliday as the Rockies' leader. Holliday was traded to the A's during the off-season after it became clear to Colorado that the slugger wouldn't re-sign a multiyear deal.
Holliday wasn't the rah-rah type who pumps up a clubhouse. But he did average 32 home runs, 113 RBIs and a .400 on-base percentage over the last three seasons. He was also the senior member of a tight-knit core of everyday Rockies who came up through the club's minor league system, a group that includes Tulowitzki, third baseman Garrett Atkins, rightfielder Brad Hawpe and second baseman Clint Barmes. "I went up to [Holliday] when I was struggling," says Tulowitzki, who adds he still solicits hitting advice from Holliday via text message. "He was willing to help because we're good friends. I'm not going to have him to go up to anymore."
Tulowitzki knows he has to learn from last year's mistakes, most of which he ascribes to immaturity. "Not only are your skills under a microscope every single day," Hurdle says, "but your character is also under the microscope. Troy dealt with some adversity last year, and I really think it helped him grow up and understand what leadership is truly about at this level."
Tulowitzki appreciates his manager's confidence and accepts his new responsibility with enthusiasm. "One thing I think a leader does is work hard on and off the field," he says, "and I feel like I put myself in a good position. People like me in this clubhouse and how hard I work. Some of your best players are your hardest workers, and I like to look at myself that way."
There are plenty of other areas that will require hard work. With starting lefthander Jeff Francis likely out for the season after surgery on his throwing shoulder, Hurdle is counting on soft-tossing Aaron Cook to front a rotation that includes Ubaldo Jiménez, a talented but still undisciplined flamethrower. Jiménez had a 3.31 ERA at Coors Field (compared with 4.72 on the road) and 172 strikeouts (but 103 walks) in 1982/3 innings. Hurdle still has to choose his closer, either Huston Street (acquired in the Holliday deal) or Manny Corpas. And the leftfield spot is a three-man battle that still may not be decided by Opening Day.