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MLB Playoffs 2017: Memories of Rocktobers past and present

Sweet, sweet Rocktober is here again

It’s been eight long years since the Colorado Rockies and their fans tasted Rocktober. Sweet, sweet Rocktober. During the first two editions of Rocktober, I had an up close and personal look. I worked for the organization from 2004 to 2010 as Assistant Editor of Publications. Standing on the field before Games 3 and 4 of the World Series in a suit, I worked when I needed to, and spent time shooting the breeze with Joe Sheehan when I didn’t. When my duties were done, I tore up to my office behind club level, ripped off the suit, put on my Rockies gear, and bounded out to the left field pavilion to watch the action.

That first Rocktober didn’t end the way Rockies fans would have hoped, but winning the pennant for the first time is still a marvelous memory. And it sure lasted longer than the second Rocktober. I could sense the ending of the second Rocktober before it started. At an employee breakfast before the National League Division Series started, then-manager Jim Tracy came to speak to us. He told us he and the team would “do their best” to beat the Philadelphia Phillies. Suffice to say, as Sean Connery’s words echoed in my head, that I was hoping for a more concrete declaration.

Nevertheless, my memories of Rocktober, and my infinitesimally small role in it, are overwhelmingly positive. Matt Holliday’s slide. Kazuo Matsui’s homer. Seth Smith’s triple. Dexter Fowler’s hurdle. Todd Helton’s walk-off homer. The morning of that doubleheader (Helton’s homer ended the nightcap), I was in the restroom, and one of our VPs walked in. What were our odds, he asked me, making small talk. I said, we gotta have both. Sweep the Dodgers, and we have a chance. With Helton’s lollipop homer, the chance was now there for the taking. But they didn’t do it alone. I’ll never forget standing in the break room that final Saturday of the season watching the Brewers and Padres, and oh my god, Tony Gwynn Jr. just tripled home the tying run off of Trevor Hoffman! Did that really happen?

I still have my Helton Rocktober street sign—the ones that were hung on 16th St. Mall, up Blake St., and all throughout LoDo—hanging in my basement. When they finally took them down, we kept a couple for ourselves. Seeing the pure joy on Helton’s face always makes me smile.

Since the end of that 2009 run, it hasn’t been roses and sunshine for the Rockies. That’s not exactly breaking news. Helton retired. Troy Tulowitzki was traded, and immediately helped take his new team deep into the playoffs. Watching former Rockies players capture rings with other teams has been about the only excitement Rockies fans have had during October. Fowler got his last year. Holliday got his in 2011. Franklin Morales didn’t pitch in the 2013 World Series, but he pitched in the ALDS and ALCS with the Red Sox, and then two years later, he pitched in the World Series with the Royals. He gave up four runs and only recorded one out, but he still got his ring. Frankie says relax.

In 2011, I joined FanGraphs, and I’ve been there ever since. In my time there, I haven’t picked the Rockies to make it to the postseason once. Partly, I didn’t want to look like the homer that I more or less am (I still remember the phone call I got from Dave Cameron about three months into my tenure at FanGraphs asking if I could please write about a team other than the Rockies), and partly because I was too superstitious. This spring, I nearly picked the boys in purple, but at the last second, I talked myself into Miami instead.

That’s not to say I didn’t believe. While I’ve certainly been critical of some Rockies moves, the optimism has always lingered. I thought the team had a shot to reach the playoffs in 2011. Last July, I wondered if the team should sell. I thought the team was a sleeper heading into 2015. And whenever they had a great night, or one of their players had a great streak or was on the verge of a great season, I’ve found a way to write about it.

While the Rockies never actually made the postseason from 2010-2016, the team was sowing the seeds for this Rocktober run. In 2010, Carlos Gonzalez proved his late-season 2009 run wasn’t a fluke. He popped 34 homers and stole 26 bases in 2010—the latter still stands as his career-best mark, as does his 5.8 fWAR.

In 2011, the team hit on their first two draft picks. Those two picks—Tyler Anderson and Trevor Story—represented the sixth time the Rockies graduated their top two picks to the majors. What’s more, they have now become the first such pair in club history to each put up 3+ fWAR for their careers.

That doesn’t sound like much, but keep in mind that it is very hard to draft and develop players, particularly for the Rockies. The Rockies have the additional challenges of playing at altitude and being an organization that needs to get the most out of its farm system, since they can’t afford to spend their way out of trouble.

The 2012 season saw the Rockies debut of DJ LeMahieu. He was acquired in December 2011 along with Tyler Colvin for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers. Two All-Star bids, one Gold Glove, one batting title and nearly 10 fWAR later, I think it’s safe to say that the Rockies won that trade.

It was in 2013 that Charlie Blackmon turned from Carson Cistulli’s hobbyhorse to legitimate major league outfielder. He hit .300 for the first time (he’s done it two more times since), and put up his first season with a 100 wRC+ or better. He’s gotten better every year since somehow, and this year he has a rightful place in the NL MVP discussion, after having his best season at the age of 31. I gave up doubting him a long time ago.

Nolan Arenado debuted in 2013, and while he looked like he’d be a defensive star then, his .267/.301/.405 line didn’t exactly position him as an offensive star. That changed quickly. In 2014, he proved that he was a force to be reckoned with. His wRC+ rose from 77 to 113, and his slugging percentage bumped up from .405 to .500, nearly a 100-point jump. It jumped even further in 2015, and it’s stayed in that .570-.580 range in the two seasons since. Arenado is now essentially the third-base version of Andruw Jones—big home runs and big defense—and the only thing stopping him from a Hall of Fame career is health.

In 2015, top prospect Jon Gray took the mound in Rockies pinstripes for the first time. While he was good on a FIP basis, he had to work through some growing pains in terms of runs allowed, but he did flash his potential plenty. In a Sept. 8 start in San Diego, he tossed five shutout innings, striking out six. His next time out, he struck out eight Dodgers in Los Angeles in just 4.2 innings. In 2016, he would cross the 10-strikeout plateau five times, and he would strike out eight batters in six other starts. He now is fourth in Rockies history in eight-K games.

He might just be the best pitcher the Rockies have ever had.

The 2016 season not only saw Gray’s first full season, but also the major league debuts for German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman. Both have been important at times in 2017; Marquez led the team in innings pitched, serving as an anchor for the team. He was promoted in late April and didn’t miss a turn through the rotation the rest of the way, which was important for a team that saw multiple starters battle either injury, ineffectiveness or both. The groundwork for this season was laid in the final start of 2016, when he struck out seven and allowed just two runs against the Brewers.

Heading into last winter, the Rockies front office could sense that it was finally time to be aggressive again. They signed Ian Desmond, Mike Dunn and Greg Holland as free agents, among others. Then, as February rolled around, and not seeing a better option, they brought back Mark Reynolds on another one-year deal. He hit 30 homers, and buoyed the offense for much of the first half. Not every move worked perfectly, but the tone had been struck. It was time to believe in the Rockies once again.

The tune didn’t change at the trade deadline. For so many years, Rockies fans had wondered “why can’t we get those guys?” No more. They got those guys. They got Pat Neshek. They got Jonathan Lucroy! Both have been pivotal to the team’s success down the stretch.

In between, two more young Rockies pitchers debuted in Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela. Both have had their fair share of highlights, though the ultimate highlight of the season on a human level has to be Chad Bettis beating cancer. No, not just beating cancer, beating cancer and returning to a major league mound. No, not just beating cancer and returning to a major league mound, beating cancer, returning to a major league mound and throwing SEVEN SHUTOUT INNINGS in said return to a major league mound.

It wasn’t just a victory on a human level, but on a team level and a statistical level. Statistically, by Win Probability Added, it was one of the two best starts of Bettis’ career. On a team level, it stopped a three-game losing streak, and allowed the Rockies to keep pace with Arizona for the Wild Card lead. That the Rockies would eventually let that lead slip away takes none of the glory away from Bettis’ start.

Finally, the Rockies are back for the third edition of Rocktober. It might be a one-night-only engagement, but that hardly matters. The Rockies have been in playoff position for so long that it took awhile for it to really hit me. When it did, the memories came crashing back. Keeping the faith even after Jorge Julio coughed up those two runs in the top of the 13th. After all, Hoffman had warmed up at least two other times before the 13th, he was probably already gassed (he was). Jeff Baker’s pinch-hit single to close out the Phillies. The six-run fourth inning, punctuated by Holliday’s mammoth homer, to close out the Diamondbacks. But more than any of that, I’ll remember my time working at 2001 Blake St. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked there, or even attended a game there, but whenever the Rockies play well, I think back on my time there, and I smile.