Wednesday June 24th, 2009

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jim Tracy speaks in a cadence, slow and singsong, that has inspired imitations from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to Colorado. He often starts sentences with a dramatic pause, then gets louder as he goes, like a speechmaker building toward a point that should not be missed. Whether it's the beginning of April or the end of September, he has a habit of reminding his audience exactly how many games remain in the season, perhaps because that number provides the context for almost everything he has to say.

So when Tracy took over as Rockies manager on May 28, charged with redirecting a gifted but rudderless team that was 18-28 and already 14 1/2 games out of first place in the National League West, he included in his inaugural address a predictable nod to the schedule. "He told us there were 116 games left," third baseman Ian Stewart said.

It was not original information, but it was important for the Rockies to hear. One-hundred-sixteen games is a ton of baseball, especially for a team that has a knack of making up large chunks of ground in very short time. Two years ago, the Rockies were 6 1/2 games out of first place on Sept. 16, won 21 of their next 22, and went to the World Series. This year, they are not waiting as long to make their move. Under Tracy, the Rockies are 19-6 and they had won 17-of-18 before falling to the Angels on Tuesday night.

The Rockies are reluctant to compare streaks, but it is impossible to ignore the similarities. "Two years ago, we had to win or our season would have been over," Stewart said. "This year, we looked at the Dodgers, and we felt like we had to win again." The Rockies are still 10 games back in the NL West, but by doggedly chasing the first-place Dodgers, they have thrust themselves right into the thick of the wild-card race.

Because of their exaggerated surges and slumps, it is difficult to figure out the Rockies' real identity. Are they the team that won 90 games in '07 or the one that lost 88 in '08? Are they the team that sputtered in April and May or the one that has accelerated through June? "I constantly hear about this run we're on," Tracy said. "But in our clubhouse, the mind set is different. This is not a run. This is who we are supposed to be."

Clint Hurdle has scores of friends in the Rockies' clubhouse, but this season players became frustrated with his constant lineup tweaks and pitching changes. By the time Hurdle was fired, some of his standbys looked lost. Second baseman Clint Barmes was batting .234. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was batting .227. Stewart was not even starting. "We were pressing, trying to do too much," Stewart said. "We had to look in the mirror and ask if were giving our all to this game. We had to ask if we could do better."

"We weren't aggressive enough," said Tracy, who started the season as Hurdle's bench coach. "We were playing way too tentative. We had to dial it up. ... They were challenged and they've responded."

Switching managers rarely does anything more than light a spark, but in this case, it has prompted mass change. In Tracy's first team meeting, he referenced the momentum generated in the fall of '07 and said, "We gave it away." In an effort to get it back, Tracy came up with a new lineup -- Barmes hitting second, Tulowitzki fifth and Stewart starting at third base (over Garrett Atkins) -- and most important: stuck with it. Now, Barmes is batting more than 40 points higher, Tulowitzki more than 30 points higher and Stewart has batted almost .300 in June. Of course, the Rockies always hit. Pitching is traditionally their undoing. But with Tracy, the Rockies earned run average has sunk more than a point.

"We're limiting bad innings," first baseman Todd Helton said. "Five-run innings are now two-run innings. You can make that up." Helton played well for Hurdle and is playing well for Tracy. He does not assign Hurdle any blame, but he does give Tracy credit. "He's got a quiet confidence about him that's transcended to us."

While Hurdle often came across as the most outgoing guy in the clubhouse, Tracy is usually not even in the clubhouse. He prefers to hang in the background and give players their space. Tracy is quiet and mild-mannered compared to Hurdle, but he is as motivated to catch the Dodgers as anyone, for reasons that go beyond the standings.

Tracy managed the Dodgers for five years, leading them to four winning seasons and their first playoff victory since 1988. But he was pressured to resign in 2005, knowing that the Dodgers were loaded with prospects on the verge. "I was disappointed in how it ended," Tracy said. "We had a very young, energetic team. We were in position to have something very special." The Pirates hired Tracy, but they did not have quite the array of young talent the Dodgers did, and he was fired after two years.

Now, those Dodgers prospects are burgeoning stars and Tracy is back in the NL West, with a team he believes can do more than put together a flashy winning streak once in a while. Two years after the Rockies sprinted all the way to the World Series, they have again taken the fast track to contention. Tracy has them on a torrid pace. His challenge is getting them to sustain it.

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