Colorado stands at a crossroads

10/29/2007 - Colorado Rockies

DENVER -- Sometime during the night, like when the Rockies put up a run with a Brad Hawpe homer to lead off the seventh inning and followed their first run of the game with a one-out single that chased Manny Delcarmen from the mound, the Last Stand of the Colorado Rockies, long anticipated, was realized.

Winning as many games as Colorado did during its amazing late-calendar run, the Rockies couldn't have allowed a magical season to end without one final charge.

For moments, they did not disappoint. The final three innings of the Rockies' season were the most competitive they had been all series. There was the Hawpe home run and Garrett Atkins' two-run home run off Hideki Okajima in the eighth inning, which cut the Boston Red Sox's lead to 4-3 and provided some hope that perhaps Colorado was not dead, after all.

But just as had been the case all series, the Rockies could not score without the Red Sox immediately slapping the momentum right out of them with an answer, a last word. With a runner on base and one out in the seventh, and the top of the order up, Mike Timlin struck out Kazuo Matsui and then Troy Tulowitzki, finishing off the latter with a fastball that left Timlin leaping off the mound.

And in the top of the eighth, Bobby Kielty pinch hit a homer that would be the difference in the series and seal what had been an increasing reality since the early innings of Game 3: Baseball in Colorado was about to shut down for the season.

And so the Rockies' postseason ascent ended not like a flower in full bloom but like a parachute that didn't open. For the players and the organization, two things will sting the most -- the speed with which they were vanquished by a superior Boston team, followed by the truth that they might not get back to this point anytime soon. They were not simply overmatched in these four games against the Red Sox, but exposed. The team was capable of a history-making hot streak and appeared destined to energize the town for many years, but the Rockies severely lacked certain components essential for lasting success in playoff baseball.

They were a comet, winning eight straight games to get to the World Series, sitting for eight days as their coal cooled, before being dusted away in four straight by the Red Sox.

When a team qualifies for the World Series, especially a young team that wasn't expected to win, the conventional wisdom says the future is bright. The Rockies would seem to fit the description. Matt Holliday is 27. He played bravely in the Series, and despite a key mistake -- he was picked off first as the tying run in the eighth inning of Game 2 -- did not play scared. His homer off Okajima in Game 3 represented one of two moments -- the final three innings of Game 4 were the second -- when the Rockies made this a series.

Tulowitzki is 22. Jeff Francis is 26. Ubaldo Jimenez is 23. Manny Corpas is 24. Franklin Morales is 21. Clint Hurdle, the manager, coaxed a pennant-winning performance from a team that stood behind five other teams with two weeks to play. The young players will continue to develop, and the experience of making the big stage will stay with them, hardening them for the moments that made them quiver the first time around.

These are nice sentiments, and it is true that the Rockies must find a way to exploit their sudden run, but the reality is quite different for the World Series loser. Since the end of the 1994 strike, only three teams -- the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals -- have lost their first World Series appearance and even returned.

The Braves, which lost to the Minnesota Twins in 1991 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992, beat the Indians in 1995 and appeared twice more, in 1996 and 1999. The Indians appeared again in 1997, then descended into a rebuilding mode that only over the past three years has begun to pay dividends. The Cardinals were swept by the Red Sox in 2004 before winning the World Series two years later with largely the same team.

Those are the exceptions, because the rest fall back into the pack, disappearing from view.

The Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series and won the NL West the following year, but they had three consecutive losing seasons before winning the division again this season. The San Francisco Giants lost the World Series to Anaheim in seven games in 2002 and haven't had a winning season since 2004.

The Chicago White Sox won the Series in 2005, appeared to have many of the ingredients in place for a long contending run -- solid starting pitching, a legitimate closer and three power bats -- and, in the words of general manager Kenny Williams, have underachieved ever since. The Houston Astros, which lost to the White Sox that year, have continued to slide further from a title rather than march toward one. The San Diego Padres reached the World Series in 1998, built a new ballpark and are as solid a franchise as they've ever been, but they've never returned to the League Championship Series, nevermind the World Series.

All of which suggests just how hard it is to be and remain successful. This is the reason why it is so important to win. What must happen now for the Rockies is an organization-wide commitment to seize the moment, even in defeat, even as the Red Sox celebrate a title on their field.

Over 36 innings, the Rockies led for just three and a half. Their pitching failed them, and over this series, it was clear they need an ace. They beat Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies' ace, as well as Brandon Webb, with a collective will during the postseason, but did not have an answer for Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka or Curt Schilling. The Rockies have tried in the past to overpay for pitching in the thin Denver altitude -- don't forget Mike Hampton's infamous megadeal during the 2000 winter meetings -- but they simply were short against a good team.

They overachieved with a payroll in the bottom third of the league. Now, to build on their successes, they must not only fill a hole in their starting rotation, but also upgrade with a greater veteran presence in middle relief and in the lineup.

Over the coming seasons, it willl be interesting to see if the Rockies' accomplishments this season represent a springboard to future successes or if the magic of '07 remains in a time capsule, an isolated incident for a franchise that expected little when the season started and was given a great gift.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.