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Vital stretch ahead for Rox

End Zone



You can watch the Colorado Rockies at least six times a week on TV, and the more you tune in, the better you understand how they've put together this remarkable run in June and July.

But there's still nothing like going to Coors Field and seeing for yourself. So, when the chance came Sunday to attend Colorado's series finale against San Francisco, there was no hesitation.

My first concern was trying to determine if the Rockies might be about to hit the wall. After their 4-2 win Sunday, they stood at 54-44 overall, but a truly phenomenal 34-12 since early June. Still, that wouldn't guarantee they can maintain such a logic-defying pace through August and September — made clear by a pair of losses early this week to the New York Mets, inauspiciously starting a difficult stretch of 16 out of 23 games on the road.

You could look at a few details and worry about Colorado. Jason Marquis, the newcomer who became Colorado's staff anchor with a first half that sent him to the All-Star Game, is dealing with a finger blister and also has a history of wearing down in the late season. Garrett Atkins, after losing the third base job, has been too inconsistent to attract the kind of trade interest that the front office was hoping to see. Carlos Gonzalez, the superb defensive outfielder obtained last offseason in the Matt Holliday deal, hasn't been able to hit consistently. Starting pitchers Jorge de la Rosa and Ubaldo Jimenez, who have been so solid and gone so far beyond expectations for the past two months, surely can't be counted upon to keep it going at the same level.

Then you see the Rockies up close, and despite their stumbles this week in New York, you can't help but think they really might be able to avoid a wreck and roll on toward the playoffs. Then, who knows?

Here's one reason why: That game Sunday was important to the Rockies as well as the Giants. Colorado wanted to hit the road with a two-game lead in the National League wild-card race, and San Francisco was trying to end a bad road trip still tied for the wild-card lead. Yet, the Rockies weren't nervous or shaky. On a day when their bats weren't so productive, their defense was superior and starting pitcher Aaron Cook made it through seven innings, scattering nine hits but walking none. Cook, by the way, is now 7-0 in his past 10 starts.

This was the textbook example of a calm, workmanlike victory, which is exactly what contending teams have to produce. They don't need comebacks or draining, emotional performances. They do need defense, especially from guys who aren't hitting so well, like second baseman Clint Barmes, third baseman Ian Stewart and Gonzalez. In person, those three are even more impressive in the field, in terms of both instincts and quickness.

Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe and Troy Tulowitzki clearly have to carry the team offensively, and they can do that. Tulo is just heating up, while Helton and Hawpe have been dependable all season.

It's hard to be so sure about the bullpen. Franklin Morales, sharing the setup role but also serving as a potential fill-in starter if needed, was totally overpowering Sunday, repeatedly throwing 95 mph. But then he gave up a pinch-hit grand slam Monday against the Mets. Rafael Betancourt, obtained from Cleveland for a second-level prospect, stamped himself as a good addition with spotless innings Friday and Saturday, but he wasn't used in a tie game Monday. And the Rockies now have youngster Jhoulys Chacin, brought all the way up from Double-A Tulsa, as a possible spot starter as well. But going into Wednesday, he had exactly two innings of major-league experience.

Colorado still could use a veteran bat (preferably lefthanded) off the bench. Regardless, though, the Rockies can't expect an easy path to the playoffs. Atlanta has come around, the Giants haven't given up, and the NL Central race between Chicago and St. Louis will push both harder in the weeks ahead.

But the schedule still could be important. From Aug. 20 through Sept. 10, the Rockies play 17 of 20 games at home. In the meantime, they're facing three pivotal weeks.

If you can get into Major League Baseball, this would be a good time to begin paying more attention.

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