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Rox want to prove title was no fluke

Arnie Stapleton
AP Sports Writer
Vail, CO Colorado
Colorado Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning of a spring training baseball game Monday March 24, 2008 in Phoenix, Ariz. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
AP | AP

DENVER ” Despite a rotation loaded with more assumptions than aces, the Colorado Rockies insist 2008 will show that last year’s NL pennant was a prelude to bigger things.

Instead of a swagger in the clubhouse, there’s a sense of unfinished business for the young, talented team that set a franchise record for wins but was overmatched in a World Series sweep by the Boston Red Sox.

“We need to win four more games,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

And another thing, Hurdle said, what about winning the NL West?

The Rockies can’t even claim they’re the defending division champs. That honor goes to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rockies won the wild card last year in an extra-inning tiebreaker over San Diego, part of a 21-1 run-up to the World Series.

“It makes it easier to make the playoffs if you win your division,” Hurdle said. “The script that we wrote last year, I don’t think any man could have written that script. We’d like to try to do it a little bit differently so we don’t have to have a run at the end of the season like we had.”

The Rockies started off 18-27 last season only to reel off wins in 14 of their final 15 regular-season games, including the wild-card tiebreaker, to sneak into the postseason at 90-73. Once there, they won seven straight to take their first NL pennant.

While division rivals were adding the likes of Dan Haren (Arizona), Mark Prior (San Diego), Joe Torre (Los Angeles), and Aaron Rowand (San Francisco), the Rockies’ offseason spending spree consisted of opening up their checkbook to secure their young nucleus.

They signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, right fielder Brad Hawpe, closer Manny Corpas and right-hander Aaron Cook and locked up slugger Matt Holliday with a two-year deal they hope is the first step toward a long-term relationship.

“Our big thing is we’re still a young team and the experience that we gained last year is sort of our free agency,” said team owner Charlie Monfort, who boosted payroll from $61 million to about $70 million.

The Rockies’ top target on the open market was former Yankees right-hander Luis Vizcaino, who received a $7.5 million, two-year contract, modest by most standards although the biggest ever for a Colorado reliever.

He replaces LaTroy Hawkins, who bolted to the Yankees. Vizcaino will help set the table for Corpas, the 25-year-old Panamanian right-hander who replaced three-time All-Star Brian Fuentes as Colorado’s closer on July 7. He saved 19 of 20 games and went 4-2 with a 2.08 ERA, the lowest by a reliever in club history, then starred in the playoffs, going 1-0 with a 0.87 ERA in nine appearances.

In the offseason, Corpas signed for $8 million over four years with two options that could push the package to $23 million. There’s no precedent for a reliever with just over a year’s service in the major leagues receiving a deal of this magnitude. Any hesitation on the club’s part, however, was erased by Corpas’ performance in the playoffs, where he recorded five saves and held hitters to a .167 batting average.

“As we see it, there’s relievers that can close games and there’s relievers that can close big games,” assistant general manager Bill Geivett said.

And the Rockies sure count on being in some more big games in the coming years.

So, the bullpen is ready, the lineup is set with slick-fielding rookie Jayson Nix replacing Kaz Matsui, who left for Houston, at second base.

But what about the starting rotation?

Ace right-hander Jeff Francis won 17 games last year, but the rest of the group won 17 games altogether.

Francis is followed by Cook (8-7), who missed six weeks with an oblique injury before returning to pitch Game 4 of the World Series, suffering the loss despite allowing just three runs on six hits over six innings.

Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (4-4) played a key role down the stretch along with fellow rookie Franklin Morales (3-2), a lefty with a 98 mph fastball who’s still working on control and consistency and who rounds out the rotation along with veteran left-hander Mark Redman (2-0), who also was clutch in September.

Right-hander Jason Hirsh was expected to be the No. 4 starter but he strained his right rotator cuff the first week of exhibitions and is out indefinitely, and neither Morales nor Redman were especially sharp in spring training but they beat out Josh Towers and others based primarily on 2007.

“Nobody got out of the blocks clean,” Hurdle said. “So, we looked at the people we know.”

The known, however, is still largely untested.

“It’s a good team,” Holliday said. “Obviously we’ve got some questions marks at the back end of our rotation. I think our guys will step up and perform.”

The unquestioned leader of this team is no longer Holliday or first baseman Todd Helton. It’s Tulowitzki’s team now.

He led big league shortstops in fielding percentage last year, got to many more balls than anyone at his position and even turned an unassisted triple play, just the 13th in major league history. He also set an NL rookie record for home runs by a shortstop (24) and batted .291 with 99 RBIs.

“He made some plays that were jaw-dropping, eye-opening, take-your-breath-away,” Hurdle said. “He showed some leadership traits for a young player that I hadn’t seen before on the field in the heat of battle. Some big swings of the bat late in games that you don’t count on.

“But about two-thirds of the way through the season, nothing he did after that kind of surprised us. He threw a lot at us in a hurry.”

Ownership quickly threw a lot of money his way, too, giving Tulowitzki $31 million over six seasons, the largest contract for a second-year player in the majors.

“A lot can change in a year,” said the budding 23-year-old star, who arrived at spring training in his dream car: a spiffy black Maserati GranTurismo, which replaced the SUV he was tooling around in a year ago.


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