Bench crew thrives when called upon
Rockies' low-profile threats now not-so-secret weapons
DENVER -- The Rockies will enter the 2007 World Series with the spotlight on the heart of their order, the few big names that have helped fuel Colorado's incredible winning streak. But when the team needs a key hit in a key situation, the glare will invariably shift to find its role players, and they will find a way to make a difference.It's been that way ever since Colorado's magical mystery tour began, and even before. The 7-0 start to the Rockies' postseason has been testimony to the long-held belief that the baseball season showcases heroes, but October discovers them. The Colorado core is among the Majors' best, the team's upstart billing notwithstanding. Three-through-seven, they averaged 111 RBIs (Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe and Troy Tulowitzki). They are the henchmen. But, often, their shots simply soften up foes, so one of the benchmen can flatten them. Cory Sullivan, Chris Iannetta, Jamey Carroll, Jeff Baker, Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs collectively are the Rockies' secret weapon. The lowest-profile threats on a stealth team. No history lessons required here, just current events: In Game 2 of the NLCS, Spilborghs' pinch-hit bunt single triggered Arizona closer Jose Valverde's undoing; in Game 4, Smith's pinch-hit two-run double delivered the first two runs of the 6-4 clincher. "We don't want to be the reason something goes wrong. We want to be the reason something goes right," said Iannetta, summarizing his clique's attitude. They've come from different stations and career stages to this point, from Major League baby Smith to former Rockies regulars Carroll and Sullivan. All have had to make adjustments to excel in their current roles, no one as dramatically as Smith, the Golden Boy of Colorado's run. Smith, 25, was promoted from Colorado Springs in mid-September, actually 10 days after the Triple-A season had ended. His first big league appearance came on Sept. 16 -- the day the Rockies began their 21-1 spree. He has thus worn a big league uniform for over a month, and has experienced one loss. "I've got like 15 days in [of Major League service time], and to be a part of this is amazing, unexpected," Smith said. "To get [to a World Series] with someone like Todd Helton, who has waited so long, is just awesome. "These guys have worked so hard all season." Smith has done his part, turning his occasional cameos into smash performances. Except for getting a second at-bat in that Sept. 16 debut (a 13-0 romp over Florida), he has been used exclusively as a pinch-hitter, going 7-for-11, amazing production for an erstwhile frontline player new to the role. "I might have had five pinch-hit at-bats in Colorado Springs," said Smith, who batted .317 with 17 homers and 82 RBIs with the Sky Sox. "And maybe one or two in college. But it enables me to use all my focus on one at-bat, so in that sense it may be easier. "I don't have to think about playing defense, or, 'How did this pitcher handle me last time?'" Carroll, Colorado's starting second baseman for most of 2006, prior to the September return of Kaz Matsui, is the senior benchman, 33 and in his sixth big league season. High-strung by nature anyway, lurking in the dugout has been an emotional challenge.
"I turn my thoughts from being nervous and being tentative to, 'Let's have some fun with this. Let's be aggressive and see what happens,'" said Carroll, who will always be remembered for the sacrifice fly to medium-right that delivered Holliday with the 13th-inning playoff-clinching run against the Padres. "It's fun to do. It's a challenge."Similarly, Sullivan, 28, started in center field for the Rockies for most of the last two seasons, then made way for Willy Taveras. Even as Sullivan's role has diminished, his clubhouse value has mushroomed as one of the irreverent guys always keeping everyone else loose. No one, obviously, has had to make a more jarring adjustment than Spilborghs, who stepped in as a regular when a strained quad sidelined Taveras in early September and helped fuel the Rockies down the stretch. Spilborghs batted .328 and reached base 41 percent of the time after replacing Taveras on Sept. 8, and kept it up through the Division Series sweep of the Phillies (.455 on-base percentage). But when Taveras pronounced himself fit for the NLCS, Spilborghs was asked to recede back into the shadows. He did so with a ready-to-serve attitude. Having him back on the bench definitely improves manager Clint Hurdle's late-game options, since Spilborghs collected 11 RBIs in 29 pinch-hit appearances, while batting .310 in that capacity. The Rockies' eight-day layoff between the end of the NLCS and the start of the World Series has fueled a lot of the interim speculation, but it can't affect their secret-weapons cache. These guys are used to staying ready through long waits all the time. "It's the same as always. You never know when you might be called on to help the team," Iannetta said. "We want to do anything we can to help, and be ready for whatever you're called on to do ... start, back up, pinch-hit ... whatever." "We all have a sense of pride," Smith said. "It's the personality of this club that we expect someone different to contribute daily. We're all thinking, 'What do I have to do today to help us win this game?'"
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.