Game 4 is Cook's latest challenge
Out for 2 1/2 months, he's charged with saving Rox's season
DENVER -- As if he didn't already have enough on his plate, all Aaron Cook has to do now is find the right recipe to save the Rockies' season at Coors Field.Making his first start since Aug. 10, when he suffered an oblique injury that took more than two months to heal, Cook will be asked to keep the rampaging Red Sox at bay in Game 4 of a World Series that has been Boston's show through three games. It's back to Back Bay for New England's heroes for another wild celebration if Cook and Co. can't concoct the right ingredients on Sunday night. "If you know anything about Cookie, you know he's got the [courage] -- nothing fazes him," Rockies reliever Matt Herges said after a 10-5 loss in Game 3 of the best-of-seven series. "I want him out there. If there's anybody who believes in his stuff, nobody does better than Aaron Cook." Cook, who rebounded from a 2004 life-threatening blood clot in his lungs, faces Boston's Jon Lester, a recovering cancer victim. Clint Hurdle, who always seems to lead with his heart, got right to the core of this confrontation. "I don't think it's a coincidence," Hurdle, the Rockies' manager, said. "I think this game drips with irony at different times for different reasons -- and it's not just because of the game and managers matching pitchers up. "I guarantee you [Boston's Terry] Francona wasn't looking for a way to match up Lester with Cook, nor was I. But it's happened because it's happened, and I believe in a lot of different venues that God's fingerprints are all over a lot of things if we are able to open our eyes and recognize -- whatever faith you have." Cook hasn't pitched for the Rockies since suffering a strained oblique on Aug. 10. Not since Bob Grim with the 1955 New York Yankees has a pitcher gone so long between starts in the regular season and World Series, Grim working Game 5 after not having started since June 12. This return from muscular discomfort is relatively minor in the bigger comeback picture for Cook. "It's kind of ironic with [Lester] going through what he went through and me, what I went through, both of us to work our way back up to the top level of professional baseball," Cook said. "It's tough enough to get here. What we've been through, just to keep our focus, keep our faith and just realize -- I'm sure he realizes too without talking to him -- that baseball is not the most important thing. "Once you realize that baseball is not the most important thing in the world, you're able to relax, put it back in perspective, play it like a game and have fun. I'm sure that's what he's been able to do, too." On Aug. 7, 2004, Cook had to leave a start against Cincinnati with dizziness and breathing problems. Diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, blood clots having traveled from his right shoulder into his lungs, Cook underwent the first of two surgeries on Sept. 10 in St. Louis -- an eight-hour procedure in which the first rib on his right side was removed. A second surgery on Dec. 27 returned blood flow to normal. The road back to the Rockies, from countless hours of rehab to four Minor League stops in 2005, culminated in a remarkable 7-2 record and 3.67 ERA in 13 starts for Colorado. "Aaron Cook [is] a very special individual," Hurdle said. "He has already had a life-changing event. I think it's opened his eyes up to a lot of different things, but I also think it hasn't taken away his aggressiveness, his desire to make pitches, to win games, to be the best pitcher he can be."
A Hamilton, Ohio, native, Cook, 28, came back in 2006 with a deceptive 9-15 record and 4.23 ERA across 212 2/3 innings.In 25 games this year, beginning with an Opening Day start, he was 8-7 with a 4.12 ERA -- fourth lowest in franchise history -- when he strained the oblique. He tried to come back on Sept. 1, pitching for Triple-A Colorado Springs, but the oblique balked, and he shut it down after one inning. "I was kind of surprised how long it was going to take to recover from the oblique injury," Cook said. "But our trainers were never surprised. They told me, six to eight weeks I'd be healed, and here we are." Cook, with his heavy sinker and superb command, is a master of a fine art the Rockies refer to as "pitching to soft contact." His 2.78 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was third best in the National League, while his 3.31 strikeouts per nine innings was the lowest of any starter in the Majors with at least 162 innings. Supporting Rockies pitchers is a superb defense that set a Major League record for fielding efficiency with a .98925 fielding percentage. What pitching to soft contact really means, Hurdle explained, is avoiding the sweet spot on the bat. "I had one of our craftsmen here take the barrel of the bat off the bat and then cut the actual sweet spot out of the bat," Hurdle said, grinning. "It's about three inches long and about an inch and a half wide. "There [have] been Spring Trainings where I've shown it to the pitchers and said, `This is [what] you want to stay away from; it's not the whole bat.' "Sometimes your mindset is to miss the bat. I'm sure there are times when you look behind at your defense and you think that's appropriate. Not at this level. That's our mindset. We want our pitchers to be aggressive in the zone and just stay away from the barrel. Controlled bat speed is what pitching all comes down to."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.