Andy Cross, The Denver Post
In the wake of the Super Bowl, The Great Missed Opportunity Series continues with the Colorado Rockies.
Denver is a Broncos city but when the Rockies have been good, the fans have shown up.
The Rockies have never won the National League West, but they have made the post season three times in their 21 year history. Each time they needed a September surge to make the playoffs as a Wild Card.
In 1995, the Blake Street Bombers won 10 out of 12 games in September and took the final two of the year, holding off the Cubs to win the first ever NL Wild Card. That team gave the Atlanta Braves a bigger fight than anyone was expecting but ultimately fell in 4 games to the eventual World Champs.
The 2007 Rockies basically ran the table to finish the year and then stampeded into the World Series where they were quickly dispatched by a superior Red Sox team.
Neither of those teams are the Great Missed Opportunity. The 1995 team was not in the Braves class and the 2007 squad won the pennant, eliminating them from consideration according to my rules.
But the team that lost in the 2009 post season may have been the best chance for a Colorado team to win the World Series.
Early on that season, it was clear that the pennant two years prior must have been a fluke. Manager Clint Hurdle could not get the team on track after dealing former MVP candidate Matt Holliday to Oakland (he would wind up in St. Louis later than year.)
By Memorial Day the team was a mess. Infielders Garrett Atkins and Troy Tulowitzki were supposed to provide steady offense. Instead they were sputtering in the low .200’s. The pitching staff was a disaster, led by the disappointing Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook. Manny Corpas and Huston Street kept switching roles as closer and neither could do the job. And the fielding was horrific. Only the lowly Washington Nationals were worse in the NL.
Rockies management decided to shake things up at the unofficial 1/3 mark of the season and fired Clint Hurdle. Less than two seasons after guiding the Rockies to the World Series, Hurdle was out and Jim Tracy was in.
Karl Gehring – Denver Post
And not long after that, the team turned things around. Tracy was a contrast to the “play the hot hand” style of Hurdle. He managed by the book and gave everyone their roles. He also benched Atkins and replaced him with Ian Stewart, who rewarded the team a 25 homer season.
Todd Helton continued to put up solid numbers, Tulowitzki turned his season around and young contributors like Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith and Carlos Gonzalez (acquired for Holliday) made the Rockies offense potent again.
Meanwhile the pitching staff turned a corner with a torrid 21-7 June. Jimenez, who started the season 3-6, started winning. He won three straight decisions in June including a complete game effort against the Mariners on June 18th.
Jason Marquis pitched a 2 hit shutout against the Dodgers on June 30th to raise his record to 10-5. Jorge De La Rose won four decisions, raising his record from 0-6 to 4-7 in a month. Cool won five straight starts in June, going 8 innings with 1 run in two of them.
The team won 17 out of 18 games in one June stretch, going from 12 games under .500 to 4 games over. The also ran squad were now just 1/2 a game out of the Wild Card with more than half the season to play.
The Rockies continued to play steady winning ball throughout the summer. In late August, they took 3 out of 4 from the Giants at Coors Field. The final game of the series on August 23rd was a wild classic game. Barry Zito and Jason Marquis matched up in a pitchers duel that sent the game 1-1 into extra innings. San Francisco scored three in the top of the 14th inning off of Adam Eaton.
Karl Gehring, The Denver Post
In the bottom of the 14th with closer Brian Wilson already out of the game, Giants pitcher Brandon Medders tried to close down the game, but let up a lead off walk. Reliever Justin Miller allowed the bases to be loaded with one out, walking in a run in the process. Merkin Valdez tried his hand at closing out the game but Ryan Spilborghs hit a 1 out walk off go ahead grand slam to give the Rockies the 6-4 win.
The next game on August 25th, Colorado beat first place Los Angeles in another extra inning free for all highlighted by Troy Tulowitzki’s walk off single. The Rockies were now just 2 games out of first place.
But a 5 game losing streak took them out of the Division Race. Jim Tracy’s squad responded by winning 10 of 11 into mid September. Chris Iannerra hit a 2 run walk off homer on September 29th against the Brewers to pull them closer to a playoff spot.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America
On October 1, Aaron cook won his 11th game and dropped his once gigantic ERA to 4.16. The Rockies had clinched a playoff spot and still had a chance at the Division if they could sweep the Dodgers at the end of the season. They fell 2 games short but were the Wild Card.
The Rockies would face the Phillies, the team they swept out of the playoffs in 2007 but went on to win the 2008 World Series. In the 2009 Division Series opener, Cliff Lee made short work of Ubaldo Jimenez and the Rockies. Not only did he throw a complete game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia but also got a hit and stole a base as the Phillies won 5-1.
But in the second game, the Rockies took advantage of Cole Hamels, whose mind seemed to be on his wife who was going into labor. The man who dominated the 2008 post season made a miscue that allowed the Rockies to take an early 1-0 lead. They would extend the lead to 4-0, helped in part by a 2 run homer by Yorvit Torrealba. Aaron Cook kept the Rockies in the game but the Phillies crept back. In the 9th, Huston Street faced Shane Victorino with 2 outs and 2 on while clinging to a 5-4 lead. He lined out to second and the series was tied heading back to Denver.
There the weather conspired against baseball. A snow storm and a failed heating system of the field prevented Game 3 from being played on its scheduled day. When play resumed, Rockies fans witnessed an agonizing number of “What If’s?” unravel.
The Rockies jumped out to an early 3-1 lead before the Phillies rallied in the 4th off of starter Jason Hammel. Carlos Ruiz’s RBI single game the Phillies a 4-3 lead. In the bottom of the 4th, Carlos Gonzalez homered off of Joe Blanton to tie the game 4-4 and it became a battle of the bullpens.
The teams exchanged runs and sent the game tied into the 9th. With one out and a runner on second, Chase Utley knocked a weak ball that hit his leg, making it a foul ball. But umpire Jerry Meals said the ball was in play.
Huston Street made a hurried throw to first where Todd Helton made the play for the out. But umpire Ron Kulpa called him safe. Two blown calls that simple instant replay would have corrected were made on the same play of a tied game in the 9th inning. Instead of a runner on third and two outs or a foul ball, there were runners on the corners and only one out.
Ryan Howard would knock in the run on a sacrifice fly, giving the Phillies a 5-4 lead. In the bottom of the 9th with slumping closer Brad Lidge on the mound, the Rockies tried to erase the hole that the umpires put them in. But with the tying and winning runs on base, Troy Tulowitzki popped up to left field to end the game.
The Rockies and their coaches were enraged after the game about the blown calls but could do little about it. Lee was on the mound for Game 4 and they’d be eliminated with a loss.
Cliff Lee continued his domination of the Rockies, taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 8th inning. Ubaldo Jimenez nearly matched Lee, allowing the game to be within reach in the 8th.
John Leyba – Denver Post
A Chase Utley error in the 8th started a series of dominoes to fall and knocked Lee out of the game. Jason Giambi tied the game with a pinch hit single and then Yorvit Torrealba knocked in a pair with a double. The Rockies had a 4-2 lead and were on the verge of extending the series.
Huston Street was called upon for the save. With 2 outs and a runner on, Street walked Utley on a full count.
Howard followed that with a 2 run double to tie the game. Jayson Werth untied the game with a single and suddenly the Rockies were 3 outs from elimination.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was gunshy for using Lidge in the 9th and summoned Scott Eyre to close out the series. But Gonzalez and Helton both singled and the winning run came to the plate in the form of the slumping Tulowitzki.
Lidge game in and struck out Tulo on a 2-2 count. The Phillies won and advanced to the NLCS. They beat LA for the pennant before losing to the Yankees in a thrilling 6 game series.
The Rockies season was over as were any hopes for a pennant. Had the Rockies won just one of the games at home, they would have forced a 5th game against either a distracted Cole Hamel or a fading Pedro Martinez.
Had they won just one of the two games lost in the 9th inning at home, they would have been in a prime position to win the Division Series.
The match up against LA would have been touch as the Dodgers won the season series handily. But the Rockies had the momentum of eliminating the Defending Champs and as deep a pitching staff as they had ever had.
Instead they fell into the wasteland of forgotten Division Series teams. Jim Tracy won the National League Manager of the Year and Troy Tulowitzki finished in the top five for the MVP vote.
The Rockies fell onto hard times. After finishing 83-79 in 2010, the team has not finished at .500 since. Jim Tracy resigned after conflicts with ownership and the management is considered to be one of the most dysfunctional in baseball.
If a few balls had bounced their way and a few calls were not blown, maybe the 2009 team would have gone further than even the magical Rocktober 2007 National League Champions.
Alas a great missed opportunity seen a mile above sea level.