Jonah Freedman
Tuesday September 1st, 2009

All of a sudden, the Colorado Rockies aren't walking on water anymore. They've lost a season-high five straight, including a crippling three-game sweep in San Francisco, and have given up sole possession of the National League wild-card lead.

Heading into a three-game set back at Coors Field against the Mets that begins Tuesday night, the Miracle Rox 2.0 find themselves in dire need of a win and some momentum. So what moment from this season will they draw on for some inspiration to get them moving in the right direction?

How about winning 17 of 18 games in June, which brought them from 12 games under .500 to back in the thick of the playoff race?

Maybe Troy Tulowitzki hitting for the cycle against the Cubs early last month, officially putting last season's sophomore slump behind him and becoming the walking embodiment of Colorado's midseason turnaround?

Better yet, how about Ryan Spilborghs' walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 14th three weeks later that gave Colorado a wild come-from-behind win over the Giants at Coors Field and what was then a commanding four-game lead for the National League wild card?

No, the moment the rebounding Rox can hang their hats on was a simple ground ball last Friday in San Francisco. With his team up 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Giants right fielder Randy Winn hit a bullet down the first base line that ricocheted off the bag. With one slick move, the ageless Todd Helton dove to his left and made a stab out of thin air before falling to the ground and making the throw to a charging Ubaldo Jimenez at first for the out.

"Adrenaline does funny things," Helton recalled of that play. "In a big game, you gotta go get the baseball."

The play had little bearing on the result -- San Francisco would hold its lead for the victory in Game 1 of the eventual sweep -- but Helton's acrobatics typified a year in which Colorado has continued to defy conventional wisdom, yet again, and refuses to go away.

The Rockies have been perhaps the biggest story in baseball over the past few months. Since Clint Hurdle was fired as manager on May 28 and replaced by Jim Tracy, Colorado went an MLB-best 54-25 over the next 13 weeks to rebound from a 15 1/2-game deficit in the NL West to surprise wild-card leaders. The comparisons to the Miracle Rox of 2007 -- who closed out that season by winning 14 of 15 -- were natural, though this year's run came far earlier than the team that made its shocking sprint to the World Series.

Now, for the first time since the May shake-up, the Rockies are in major need of something to pick them back up off the mats, something that can put them back in control of their postseason hopes. And as Colorado has done for the past 12 seasons, they'll look to their rugged veteran for their cues.

"When you think of the Rockies, you think of Todd Helton," Tulowitzki said. "All you need to do with a guy like that is follow him around."

At age 36, Helton is by far the oldest regular in a lineup of young studs. And yet he's still arguably the most dangerous player in the batting order. He currently leads the team with a .326 batting average (good for third in the NL), 146 hits and a .412 on-base percentage, all numbers that are close to his career averages. This isn't the Todd Helton of 10 years ago, who was a threat to go deep every time he came to bat -- a degenerative spinal condition has robbed him of some of his power -- but he's still hitting the ball hard enough in what is surely the twilight of his career.

"Some days, you just don't have it anymore," he explained of the adjustments he has been forced to make. "The biggest thing is when you do feel like that, you don't go out there and try to do too much -- just putting a good swing on the ball instead of trying to hit it out."

Helton has seen it all during the 12 full seasons of his career, every one of them spent in Denver. He has been through plenty of highs, such as winning the NL batting title in 2000 with a .372 average and being a key part of the '07 World Series run. He also has experienced plenty of lows, such as nine seasons of finishing fourth or fifth in the NL West, suffering through intestinal problems in '06 and finally shutting down last season in mid-August when his ailing back became too intense. He's such an institution at Coors Field that you almost forget that the last guy to hold down the first base position there was Andres Galarraga.

This season, Helton's performance has been one of the most pleasant surprises for Colorado, which spent much of the offseason figuring out how it would replace the production of traded Matt Holliday. As it turns out, the Rockies have been able to depend on a guy they weren't sure would ever be 100 percent again, especially after offseason back surgery.

"You could obviously tell he was hurting last year," Tulowitzki recalled. "He wasn't himself. But seeing him swing in spring training, I knew he was going to have a phenomenal year. His strength was back."

Helton's return to form has hardly been the only driving force behind the Rockies' surge. Tulowitzki's resurgence has been a big factor, as has Jimenez's development into the flame-throwing ace Colorado was hoping he'd be. Offseason acquisitions such as Huston Street, Jason Marquis and Carlos Gonzalez are looking like the latest masterstrokes by GM Dan O'Dowd. And to say the firing of the likable Hurdle was a huge wake-up call is a huge understatement.

But the Rockies -- and even their opponents -- know they'll only go as far as Helton can carry them. "He gets himself started and gets those guys to finish around him," Giants ace Matt Cain observed. "They definitely feed off him. He still plays like he's young."

He's not, of course, and he'll be the first to admit it: He talks about the "challenge of overcoming the aches and pains." But the good news for Rockies fans is the five-time All-Star is in good spirits and is enjoying himself in a clubhouse that easily could tune him out: He's the only starter in the lineup who is older than 30 (and, for the record, with a $16.6 million salary, is earning more this season than all of them combined).

"These guys are mature beyond their years," Helton said. "They show up and play every day, and it's fun to show up every day. I don't play video games with them or anything like that, but we have a good time together."

And while he admits this current team doesn't have the most raw talent of any he has been on -- lest we forget, he was surrounded by Galarraga, Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla in 1997, his rookie season -- the current Rockies do have the greatest will to win.

"This is the best team overall that goes out and executes and does the little things that it takes to win ball games," Helton said. "We have a good group of guys in here."

The Rockies are getting some minor boosts as they gear up for the stretch run: The acquisition of journeyman right-hander Jose Contreras could help, and recently signed Jason Giambi may be another pleasantly surprising veteran bat. But with a playoff spot at stake, they'll have to take the example of Helton's leadership, even though he won't be in the lineup every night. Tracy says he'll try to rest his veteran first baseman at least once a week, given the aches and pains he's experiencing.

But Colorado knows Helton is their talisman -- with his bat, his glove and his lead-by-example professionalism. Win or lose, through good and bad, he's the one the Rockies will look to when they need a guide on the way back to the postseason.

"Our ambition is to be in a very special place come about the fourth of October," Tracy said. "We can't make it without Todd."

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