Rockies open big series with Giants on Friday
AP Sports Writer
DENVER, Colorado – Resting above Todd Helton’s locker is a green plastic street sign that says “Todd Helton Dr.” in bold white letters.
The sign has become quite fitting since the longtime Colorado first baseman helped the Rockies find their way again, making a U-turn from an early season slide to drive back into contention.
The Rockies (52-43) lead the NL wild-card race by one game over the San Francisco Giants, a team they’ll face in a pivotal three-game series at Coors Field starting Friday.
Helton has fueled the resurgence, hitting a team-high .324 and coming up with one clutch hit after another. His latest was an eighth-inning solo homer on Wednesday that lifted the Rockies to a 4-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Helton also belted his 500th career double in the game, becoming the 50th player in major league history to reach that milestone.
Helton downplayed the double – a pleasing personal achievement, but nothing more.
Now that made him quite proud.
“Got us the win,” said Helton, who’s reached two major milestones this season as he also reached the 2,000-hit plateau on May 19 in Atlanta.
For the Rockies to even be in this position required a surprising turnaround. They were buried in the basement of the NL West in late May, on the verge of becoming also-rans before the summer heat even hit.
Manager Clint Hurdle was fired and bench coach Jim Tracy stepped in, bringing with him an easygoing attitude.
The Rockies fed off that, catching fire and going 34-15 since Tracy took over. The impressive run vaulted the Rockies into the thick of the wild-card race, but has allowed them to gain only five games on baseball’s best team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Colorado still trails the Dodgers by nine games in the division.
Insurmountable? The Rockies don’t think so.
“Right now our concern is not with the wild card. We feel we’re a division championship-type team,” All-Star Brad Hawpe said. “We’re trying to play to that caliber.”
The Rockies are anticipating large turnouts for their showdown with the Giants, something the team really didn’t see last season as they fell back to earth after winning the NL pennant in 2007.
“Last year at this time we weren’t in a position where we could hope fans would be coming out, where they had a reason to come out,” said Hawpe, whose team was 39-56 at this juncture in ’08. “We weren’t playing that kind of baseball. This year, we’ve got a heck of a team.”
That despite dealing their best player in the offseason when they traded slugger Matt Holliday to Oakland for closer Huston Street, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and left-handed starter Greg Smith.
Street has converted 24 of 25 save chances, while Gonzalez shows signs of emerging from a hitting slump. Smith remains with the Colorado Sky Sox, the Rockies’ top farm team.
As fruitful as that trade turned out to be, the biggest acquisition may have been Jason Marquis, the first 12-game winner in the majors this season.
Marquis was picked up from the Chicago Cubs to bolster a pitching staff that already boasted Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez. The crafty righty has steadily emerged as the ace, making his first All-Star team.
He was scheduled to pitch Friday night against Matt Cain, but a bothersome blister pushed back his next start until next week.
Starting in his place will be Jason Hammel, a surprise in his own right since being picked up from the Tampa Bay Rays in April. The Rockies have won nine of the last 11 games in which Hammel has started.
That’s why Marquis isn’t fretting over missing a few days.
“We have a lot of capable guys,” Marquis said. “We’ve won a lot of ball games with those guys on the mound.”
With 67 games remaining – and six teams hovering within four games of the wild card spot – the Rockies aren’t looking at this series as high stakes. The Giants are merely another squad coming into Coors Field, where the Rockies are 25-20.
“We’re definitely pumped,” Troy Tulowitzki said. “But at the same time, we’re going to treat it like any other series.”