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Never-say-die Rockies in the midst of another unbelievable turnaround

When a team is struggling and falling far behind in the standings, its players will often invoke the Colorado Rockies, the team most famous for coming out of nowhere to make it to the World Series. Players on these fading teams inevitably suggest they could become the new Rockies. But few do.

The Mets were saying it for the longest time before they finally stopped saying it. Then a few days ago, the Cubs' Ted Lilly started suggesting that they also could become the new Rockies, the team that won 21 of 22 games back in 2007 to become the biggest surprise entrant in any October derby. Lilly's prediction aside, the Cubs show no signs of repeating the Rockies' resurrection.

That's the new drill, though. Every team that's an early disappointment is on the verge of becoming the new Rockies in their minds. But guess what?

This year's Rockies are, in fact, the Rockies.

The Rockies are the team that again made a sudden turn after appearing to be on the road to oblivion back in May. They are repeating history, once again coming out of nowhere. They are again clearing every hurdle in establishing themselves as the wild-card favorite in a wild National League derby (and suddenly a definite contender in the division race).

Ryan Spilborghs' walk-off grand slam in the 14th inning to cap off a comeback Monday night put them four games in front of San Francisco in the wild card. And now, after making it two extra-inning walk-off wins with a 5-4 victory over the first-place Dodgers Tuesday, they actually only trail Los Angeles by two games in the NL West, quite a feat for a team that once trailed the Dodgers by 15.

A lot of folks are surprised about the turnaround. Though, not all. "They are solid in all areas," one competing GM notes. "They have solid starting pitching that's a little underrated. They have a deep lineup that matches up well, left and right. It's not a team that has a weakness."

But man, does it have a strength or two. While de facto ace Aaron Cook had to go to the disabled list the other day, the Rockies have received surprisingly excellent performances from the talented Ubaldo Jimenez plus Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Marquis and Jason Hammel in a rotation that has been startlingly effective.

Their player development system, under oddly anonymous executive Bill Geivett, has been among the most productive in baseball, and GM Dan O'Dowd has made more worthwhile trades than anyone this year. The Matt Holliday deal has worked out shockingly well for the Rockies, as Huston Street leads the National League in saves and Carlos (The Knife) Gonzalez looks like budding star. But the less-heralded deals for Marquis and Hammel have been important, as well. Marquis, 14-8, came for reliever Luis Vizcaino, who was long ago released by the struggling Cubs. Marquis has 19 quality starts, which is tied for third-most in the NL behind Tim Lincecum (21) and Josh Johnson (20). Rafael Betancourt, acquired from Cleveland in July, didn't allow a run in his first 14 appearances.

Overall, the Rockies rotation has more quality starts than anyone, with 77, a stunning stat for team that used to be swallowed up by Coors Field. But if the humidor changed the Coors game, it was the succession of smart moves that made the Rockies a surprise contender. Clint Hurdle was a fine manager for nearly a decade in Colorado, but perhaps the message was being lost, as it tends to after awhile. So he was let go with the team at 19-28. The ascension of interim Jim Tracy might not have seemed like an inspired choice at the time, but who's saying that now? The Rockies are a 53-26 since Tracy took over (the best in the NL in that time span).

Tracy established a couple more definitive roles, and it's worked wonders. For one, he moved long-forgotten Clint Barmes into the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Barmes was hottest during turnaround time, batting .338 in a stretch where the Rockies began their push back to respectability. And Barmes and star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki now comprise the most dangerous double-play combo in baseball, with 21 and 23 home runs, respectively. Tulowitzki has emerged as a big-time player again after a difficult sophomore season, in which he hit only eight home runs and injured himself while slamming his bat into a concrete slab.

All of 24, Tulo is a bona fide comeback candidate. And longtime star Todd Helton is, too.

That makes sense. This, after all, is the team that's known for comebacks.

O'Dowd and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti could be two of the more interesting free agents this winter. The field of free-agent players is unusually weak this season, but the crop of GMs who could be free is its strongest in years, especially in the NL West, where Giants GM Brian Sabean's contract is also expiring.

Colletti, Sabean's former top lieutenant up in San Francisco, has done a consistently good job lately without a typical big-market payroll. He has a mutual option in his contract for 2010, meaning both sides have to exercise it for him to return under that salary. He's got one of the toughest jobs in baseball working for Frank McCourt, but McCourt is expected to try to bring Colletti back.

O'Dowd's deal is also up. But one competing GM said, "I would be shocked if they didn't offer him an extension.. (The Colorado bosses) seem pretty happy with the state of the franchise."

As well they should be.

On the very day the Mets announced Johan Santana and J.J. Putz were out for the year, Oliver Perez went to have his knee checked out and Gary Sheffield appeared to injure himself while walking (Mets manager Jerry Manuel said Sheffield has spasms, and he said it with a smile, which we assume he does to keep from crying), Billy Wagner came to his senses and accepted a trade to the Red Sox.

Wagner originally had reservations about going to the Red Sox in part because he worried that he'd be pressed beyond his capabilities while pitching for a contender only 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery. But he was sweet-talked into going by the Red Sox, who explained to him that they'd be careful with him. Which, incidentally, is the way they treat all their pitchers.

It was curious that Wagner thought he'd have a better chance of staying healthier with the Mets, who seem jinxed now. The news has been so bad that word that Santana only needed arthroscopic surgery to remove elbow chips that would knock him until next year was taken as a relief (he won't need Tommy John surgery and will be good to go next spring).

Wagner did well to get back from Tommy John surgery three or four months quicker than normal. And though he hesitated at first, he made the right call to go to Boston, which agreed not to pick up his $8 million option for next season. While the Red Sox didn't agree to guarantee that they would decline arbitration for Wagner as the reliever originally requested, he still understood it's better to showcase himself on a contender than the Mets.

Though this is mostly speculation, there's an outside chance, too, the Red Sox could wind up keeping Wagner and dealing incumbent closer Jonathan Papelbon over the winter. Papelbon is taking over the old Curt Schilling role of the over-opinionated, ill-informed motor mouth. Papelbon's remarks suggesting they didn't need Wagner could have hurt the chances for a deal, as Wagner didn't enjoy hearing them. After the deal was finally done, GM Theo Epstein reminded us that Papelbon is "not a Rhodes scholar."

That fits into a theory going around the game that the Red Sox might be tiring of Papelbon's act and could consider using Wagner as closer next year, with relief prodigy Daniel Bard playing the role of setup man and protégé. Papelbon would fetch a lot in trade, though that still seems like a somewhat far-fetched scenario.

• While Cliff Lee has thrived with his new team (he's 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in Philly), Roy Halladay has struggled since remaining in Toronto at the deadline. Could his struggles have something to do with the state of mind of a pitcher who was "emotionally gone" in the words of one Jays-connected person? He is 2-3 with a 4.50 ERA since not being traded.

• Halladay continues to hurt the Rangers. He's lost two straight games to the wild-card contending Rays and Red Sox after declining to go to Texas in trade. The Rangers, battling those two teams in the wild-card race, were offering hot hitting prospect Justin Smoak in a package before Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi informed Rangers people Halladay didn't want to go there. (Ricciardi has since incorrectly denied that Halladay declined the Rangers.)

Pudge Rodriguez was a good pickup for Texas, and he may soon see some time as a DH against left-handed pitchers now that Andruw Jones is on the disabled list. He's started by hitting .667 with the Rangers (4 for 6).

Bobby Abreu is to be admired for never complaining once about having to sign a bargain-basement deal of $5 million. He is having the same season he always has, only better.

• Congrats to Jacoby Ellsbury, who set the Red Sox record with 55 steals (topping Tommy Harper's 54). The Red Sox have made it a point to become more well-rounded in recent years, and it's paid off.

Chad Qualls was just put on waivers by the Diamondbacks. He's expected to be claimed, and while there's a slight chance for a deal, he's under contractual control at a reasonable rate for next year, so they aren't especially motivated to trade him.

• As if Cy Young candidate Chris Carpenter's pitching isn't good enough, supposedly he's the one who picked up that John Smoltz was tipping his pitches in Boston.

• Baseball people expect the Padres to entertain offers for Adrian Gonzalez this winter. If Halladay is also on the block, the trade market will be oddly strong.

Freddy Garcia looked very good in his outing Tuesday vs. Boston (6 1/3 innings, five hits, three runs, one walk, five K's) before the White Sox bullpen blew it. But with Jose Contreras struggling, it's a good thing Jake Peavy is on the way now.

• How tweet it is. Find me on twitter at: http://twitter.com/SI_JonHeyman.

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