Joel Sherman
Wednesday June 24th, 2009

A month ago this was not looking like a road trip as much as last rites; and taunting last rites at that.

Over nine games from June 22 until July 1, the Rockies would visit the closer they could not sign, the slugger they could not keep and the team they could not beat. It looked about as much fun as trying to eat the Rocky Mountains a spoonful at a time.

But a funny thing happened to the Rockies on the way to their June obituary: They morphed into a cross between their 2007 forerunners and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. And in the process they transformed from one of the most obvious sellers in the trade marketplace to a club trying to figure out how to add a veteran reliever on the cheap.

"The next five weeks will determine who we really are," Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd said Monday.

Caution is probably the right emotion, because the Rockies have become baseball's most schizophrenic club. Consider that the Rockies won 14 of their final 15 regular-season games to close the 2007 season, vaulting from fourth place to the NL wild-card spot and eventually to their first World Series appearance.

Then from the conclusion of that postseason until May 28 of this year, Colorado went 92-116, the sixth-worst record in the majors over that span. That included a 74-88 record last year and an 18-28 start to this season. And then Clint Hurdle was fired as manager, Jim Tracy was named as his replacement and the Rockies became the best team in baseball.

Which is great for fans in Colorado, but just horrible for what already was an incredibly contracting trade market. At the time of the managerial change, interested clubs were already doing the vulture thing around Huston Street, Brad Hawpe and Jason Marquis; the Yanks particularly were eyeing Street and the Phillies were very interested in Marquis. Now O'Dowd is telling other organizations he is in a holding pattern until at least the All-Star break. At that point, if the Rockies are still soaring, O'Dowd will keep what he has and try to uncover a cost-effective, veteran reliever who could help get the ball to Street.

O'Dowd is paying particular attention to the current California voyage as a barometer of whether his club is simply assembling an unsustainable hot streak or it is truly a formidable wild-card contender in a watered-down National League.

This road trip appears to be constructed by a novel writer more than the schedule makers in the commissioner's office. The first stop was in Anaheim to face the Angels, who in the offseason signed the Rockies' all-time saves leader, Brian Fuentes. The Rockies will then move north to face the A's, who in the offseason traded for Colorado's best player, Matt Holliday. Colorado concludes the trip by heading back to Southern California to face the Dodgers, who so far this season are 8-1 versus the Rockies, outscoring them 74-44. Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado's fine young starter, is 0-3 with a 10.20 ERA against the Dodgers this season and 6-4 with a 2.66 ERA versus everyone else; he opens the series at Chavez Ravine on Monday.

But all the 2009 horror against the Dodgers came under Hurdle. His managerial tenure ended with a three-game sweep at Coors Field that the Dodgers won by a combined score of 31-13.

The next game, with Tracy as the manager, the Rockies beat the Padres 3-0 and have hardly lost since. Entering Wednesday's game, they're 19-6 under Tracy. Before losing 4-3 to the Angels on Tuesday night, they had a franchise-record nine-game road winning streak and had won 17-of-18 overall.

So how did this happen? How do you decide to not make an offer to Fuentes, deal Holliday due to concern that keeping him in his walk year would be detrimental to the team's psyche and win just 18 of your first 46 games -- and not only survive, but ultimately thrive?

Well, don't ignore the obvious. Hurdle had been on the job seven years and presided over the greatest success in the organization's history, the 2007 NL title. But he was being tuned out by his players. In good times Hurdle's personality would be described as gregarious and in bad times bombastic. Word out of the Rockies' clubhouse was the players had grown disillusioned with the inconsistency of Hurdle's message; he either would threaten changes if inept/indifferent play continued and not follow up on the threat or follow up in one instance but let it slide in others. Word is the relationship between Hurdle and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was particularly strained.

O'Dowd counts Hurdle among his best friends and wanted badly not to make a change, going as far as to have his subordinates do a study that showed not much long-term positive impact in switching managers during a season. But when it became obvious that the players had moved on from Hurdle, O'Dowd was forced to pull the trigger.

"Were we the best team in the NL, maybe not," one Rockies insider said. "But we were a lot better than we had played for the last year and a half."

In Tracy, the Rockies picked a more low-key persona, so the volume was turned down from the manager's office. But because Tracy was promoted from being Hurdle's bench coach, he came with some ideas he wanted to employ.

It was very difficult for Hurdle to bench Garrett Atkins, who had been such an instrumental piece in that NL title. But Tracy did not have the same history with the third baseman and he was watching a once productive player struggle with the Mendoza Line and fail to rediscover his power stroke. So he moved Ian Stewart from second to his more natural third and installed Clint Barmes at second. And on June 6 the Rockies promoted Carlos Gonzalez -- a key piece from Oakland in the Holliday trade -- and made him the regular left fielder.

Those moves significantly upgraded Colorado on defense at three positions, and as the Rays showed last year with their surprise run to the AL pennant, defense can go a long way. The Rockies' ace (Aaron Cook) and biggest winner (Marquis) both average fewer than five strikeouts per nine innings. So the ball is in play against them, and since the managerial change Cook has a 2.65 ERA and Marquis is at 2.48.

On offense, Tulowitzki stopped looking as tight as he was under Hurdle and returned to his 2007 Rookie of the Year form (only Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have more homers since Tracy became Colorado's manager than Tulowitzki's seven). Meanwhile, center fielder Dexter Fowler appears as if he might make a run at the Rookie of the Year award, though even some Colorado officials wonder if his bat will be an asset.

A healthy Todd Helton has performed like the vintage Todd Helton, and if the season ended today, Hawpe would be somewhere in the top 10 in the NL MVP discussion. Since Tracy gave them steady work, Barmes is hitting .333 and Stewart is slugging .584.

And Street, another component of the Holliday trade, has a 1.52 ERA and a .167 batting average against in his past 25 appearances.

"With 90-something games left, I will say I think we are a talented club, but I do not know what that means for the rest of the season," O'Dowd said.

It sure would help if Atkins hit well enough in more limited play to get another team to take a piece of the $7.05 million he is receiving this year as the Rockies' fourth-highest paid player. That would free up some dollars for O'Dowd to attack a bullpen operating without 2008 revelation Taylor Buchholz (out for the year after Tommy John surgery) and Manny Corpas (on the DL with an elbow problem that, at the least, slightly imperils his season).

Then there is inexperience. The Rockies start just one player older than 30 (Helton), and are relying on five youngsters in the every-day lineup: Fowler, Gonzalez, Tulowitzki, Stewart and catcher Chris Iannetta. Yet, with limited funds, Colorado is more likely to turn to more youth internally. No one, in fact, would be surprised to see the Rockies ultimately tab Double-A starter Jhoulys Chacin to replace the unsteady Jorge De la Rosa.

For now, however, the Rockies will try to extend a streak as sudden and inexplicable as the one that carried them to the 2007 pennant. A month ago such a streak was inconceivable and the Rockies were front and center as probable sellers. A lot can happen in a month.

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