Baseball: Rockies rise from a hard place to enter battle with Boston

Unfancied Colorado stormed to baseball's World Series but it will be no tea party against the aristocrats of the Red Sox. Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington
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The Independent Online

Every World Series has a story line, but the 2007 edition is one of the best. Can an outfit until recently better known for devotion to Jesus than for its prowess on the field, complete the most astonishing late-season surge in major league baseball history and defeat the power-packed, legend-encrusted Red Sox?

Laden with money and boasting a huge fan base, Boston are the team best placed to take over the mantle of the New York Yankees as the sport's dominant franchise. But when its marquee event opens tonight at Fenway Park, all eyes for once will be on the visitors.

That the Colorado Rockies are even taking the field is a miracle that the strong Christian faith of a remarkable number of its players cannot fully explain. A month ago, as the regular season entered its final week, the Rockies were a long shot even to make the post-season.

But they just kept on winning, and qualified after a nailbiting 13th-inning victory over the San Diego Padres, in a single game play-off for the National League wild card. Then they swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the divisional series, before handing out a 4-0 drubbing to the Arizona Diamondbacks, owners of the National League's best record, to win the NL pennant.

In all the Rockies have won 21 of their last 22 games, and not since 1976 has a team won seven straight games in the post-season. Now, however, the Rockies face a supreme examination of nerve and skill. In a series of seven games in Boston and mile-high Denver in chilly late October, stranger things can happen.

But the American League by common consent, in terms of overall talent, is stronger than the National League – and in the American League right now, the Red Sox rule.

Currently managerless, and with a roster filled with costly, elderly and underperforming stars, the Yankees are in turmoil. Boston however have an enviable blend of youth, experience and talent. At this time of year, they say, good pitching beats good hitting, and the Red Sox's battle-hardened duo of Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling may be the toughest pair of starters in the game. If the series runs to seven games, the Rockies will probably have to face both of them twice, each time in the cauldron of Fenway Park.

Then there are the mighty bats of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, among the most potent sluggers in post-season history, as well as Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, the less-heralded pair of hitters at the top of the line-up who came up trumps against the Cleveland Indians in the AL championship series.

Youkilis went 14 for 28 against Cleveland – the first time anyone has hit .500 in a pennant series. As for the 24-year-old Pedroia, he stands just 5ft 9in and weighs barely 12st, a veritable midget in the bulked-up universe of modern baseball. But he hit the game-clinching home run in the seventh game against Cleveland, and must be a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.

For all these reasons the Red Sox start as clear favourites to win their second World Series in four years. However the Rockies have two weapons that can never be overlooked: the best defence in baseball, and a one-for-all work ethic where outsized egos have no place.

Faith has nothing to do with it, insists their relief pitcher Matt Herges, now playing with his seventh team. "If they didn't believe in God, but were good people and quality team-mates, there'd be a place for them here. This is the tightest-knit group I've ever been around." The first baseman Todd Helton, with a career batting average of .331, the second highest among active players, is as close as the Rockies come to a superstar. But playing for a small-market franchise that has only existed since 1993, even he is no household name. As for the starting pitching, it is competent, not overpowering.

But in the field the Rockies make fewer errors than anyone, and if the starters fail, the relief pitching is among the most solid. In the Arizona series, Colorado's bullpen allowed just five earned runs in 28 innings. Hardly glamorous stuff, but in the grind of modern baseball, precisely what victories are made of.

The World Series moreover is a giant stage. If the big names for now almost exclusively belong to Boston, they may soon be joined by such unknowns as Troy Tulowitzki, one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, or the Rockies' closing pitcher Manny Corpas, "almost unhittable" according to one major league scout who watches the Rockies constantly.

And Colorado have no reason to enter Fenway Park with trepidation. In an interleague series in June, they came to Boston and won two out of three games, beating both Beckett and Schilling in the process. Rather, the team's biggest problems going into the game stem from their amazing recent success.

The swift demolition of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series left the Rockies with eight days off – an eternity in baseball – before the first game in Boston.

Simulated split-squad practice games are no substitute for the real thing, especially when an early season snowfall last week forced the team to work out indoors, rather than on the grass of Coors Field, their home stadium in Denver. By the time the Rockies get back in the groove it may be too late. Compare that with the Red Sox, who only finished off the Cleveland Indians on Sunday, and have Beckett ready to go tonight, on an ideal five days' rest.

Even more forbidding is the law of averages. Not since 1935 has a team won 21 of 22 games this late after 1 September. Such a streak is a statistical freak, in the most statistics-obsessed sport of all – and one that even divine intervention may be unable to overcome.

World Series fixtures

Game 1, 24 October in Boston, 1am (BST);

Game 2, 25 October in Boston, 1am;

Game 3, 27 October in Colorado, 1am;

Game 4 28 October in Colorado, 1am;

Game 5* 29 October in Colorado, TBD;

Game 6* 31 October in Boston, TBD;

Game 7* 1 November in Boston, TBD.

(* if necessary. TV: All games live on five)

Humble humidor sees glut of homers vanish into thin air

It used to be known as baseball's Cape Canaveral, a ballpark in whose thin dry mountain air home runs were launched in unmatched numbers. But now Coors Field in Denver, where at least two World Series games will be played, has been brought down to earth - by the common humidor.

In 2001, 268 home runs were hit there, an all-time record. Then a Colorado Rockies employee noticed how his leather boots dried up over the summer. Could it be that cow-hide covered baseballs did the same, he wondered, becoming smaller, harder and lighter, and thus more likely to travel further?

The answer, it quickly emerged, was yes. Many balls had indeed shrunk to below the required weight of 5 to 5¼ ounces, and circumference of 9 to 9¼ inches. So since 2002 all balls used at Coors Field games are stored in a humidor. Just like fine cigars, they are kept slightly moist in a special climate-controlled room.

The change has been dramatic. In 2001 an average game at Coors Field produced over 13 runs. That figure immediately dropped to 10, while only 185 homers were hit in 2007, a figure only 10th among the 30 major league ballparks.

Rupert Cornwell

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