DOING PENNANTS

Far be it from us to kill the joy on Blake Street. But before Colorado Rockies fans begin lining up to buy playoff tickets, they'd do well to think about what happens on Monday.

The Rox's 7-1 start was astonishing, to be sure. Those comeback wins against the Mets and Padres are the stuff that builds character and confidence in young teams. Catcher Joe Girardi's unexpectedly fine start at the plate--16 RBIs in his first 46 at-bats and key hits in the clutch--gives even more punch to a lineup already featuring three of the National League's premiere sluggers--Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker and Dante Bichette. (Friend Billy Kennedy, by the way, has dubbed this home-run trio "Deep Purple"--as apt a local moniker as you're likely to hear.)

Despite the usual fears--and recurrent arm problems for number-three starter David Nied--Rockies pitching has also done its part. It's well-established that ex-Giant Bill Swift is the real deal, and Marvin Freeman and Kevin Ritz are just looking for a little luck this season. But the deepest delight at Coors Field this early season comes from cool rookie righty Juan Acevedo, who put the Astros in their place in his first start, then got chased after two innings in his second. If Acevedo is half as good as his first performance indicates, he could be the find of the year.

Meanwhile, dare we whisper the words "relief pitching" within the confines of our fair state? Following the Dodgers' three-game sweep of the Rockies, the Rox relievers apparently have returned to form after a combined 6-1 start. However, heading into their three-game set with the Giants, they were still capable of striding across the sparkling greensward of Coors Field with their heads held high.

Fine. Beautiful. Wave that purple pennant and buy another round for the house at Splinters From the Pine.

Because this Monday the Rockies go to Atlanta to play a four-game series. And in Atlanta, the fond dreams of a fragile young club could be gone with the wind.

Consider the dark past. In their brief history with the Braves, the Rockies have looked like Napoleon marching on Moscow, or Jack Kennedy going down to Dallas.

To wit: They've faced Atlanta 23 times and beaten them just twice.
This is in stark contrast to Colorado's record against some other pretty good teams, like Houston (18-8), Montreal (7-11) and Cincinnati (8-13). All right. So maybe Ted and Jane's bunch does have the best starting pitchers in baseball--Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker and John Smoltz may make up one of the greatest starting staffs in the history of the big leagues--but that 0-13 mark the Rox put in the book against the Braves in their inaugural season and last year's 2-8 record are the kind of thing that can deflate emerging teams in a hurry.

On the other hand, maybe the Rox will get a shot or two at Glavine.
A record check shows that this outstanding southpaw (13-9, 3.97 in 1994), who is reputed to have the best changeup in the game, was the losing pitcher in both Rockies wins over the Braves last year. On June 13 at Fulton County Stadium, Freeman beat him 7-2; on August 10 at Mile High, Ritz sneaked past Glavine 1-0 in a rain-shortened six-inning game.

Do the Rox need to be reminded that the next day Atlanta creamed them 13-0?
It wouldn't do to make too much of one series so early in the year. But over the storied history of baseball, countless players, managers and diehard fans have justly put their fingers on the lone moment in a season when Everything Changed--the four-run rally in the bottom of the tenth that took down a division rival in June; the dazzling two-hitter that restored a young pitcher's confidence in July; the unearthly September win streak (oh, sweet '69 Mets!) that fired up the very engine of history.

Or...the crucial series against a formerly unbeatable opponent that announces the arrival of a new force, a more powerful heart.

Seen in that light, maybe this set with Atlanta is a big deal. A real crucible. The road test that can transform pretenders into contenders. The real coming-out party for an expansion team. The first full-throated rendition of Deep Purple, perhaps? The National League's first rotation on its new Swift-Freeman axis?

While we watch and learn and, perhaps, exult, it's also worth noting that the Rockies face the Braves amid a nine-game road trip. They play three against expansion-mates Florida this weekend, travel to Atlanta, then move on to Cincinnati, where they'll encounter a Davey Johnson club that's hot under the collar. Despite owner Marge Schott's rubbing it in with the actual fur from her dead dog, Schottzie, her club did beat the Mets twice. The Reds, however, are still only 3-8.

Can Napoleon defeat the Russians this time out? Pull up a jumbo beer, flick on the boob tube and find out.

Colorado may be baseball country all of a sudden, but some of us are still trying to pronounce "Neuheisel." And figure out what this man means when he says his Colorado Buffalo offense will be more "cerebral."

Maybe they should make that Rick "Use Your Noodle"-heisel.
In any event, when the smoke cleared at spring practice in Boulder last week, Rashaan Salaam was still wearing a Chicago Bears jersey, Archbishop McCartney was still marking X's and O's on a chart of the heavens, and Neuheisel was, in all likelihood, still on Jesse Jackson's doodoo list because he has blond hair.

But CU football marches bravely on, into huge footsteps. Since 1989 the Buffs have the fifth-best record in the major college game (58-11-4), trailing only Miami, Florida State, uh, Nebraska and Alabama, and they currently have 26 former players in the NFL. They've shared a mythical national title with Georgia Tech, knocked mighty Notre Dame off in two major bowl games and turned Boulder into one of the hottest destinations for blue-chip high school prospects.

Can first-year head coach Neuheisel and a new cast of characters keep it up?
Maybe, but look at the starters CU lost--offensive tackles Tony Berti and Derek West, tight end Christian Fauria, Heisman Trophy tailback Salaam, quarterback Kordell Stewart, Miracle-in-Michigan wide receiver Michael Westbrook, defensive tackles Darius Holland and Shannon Clavelle (who now has fatherhood to think about), cornerback Chris Hudson and inside linebacker Ted Johnson.

That's a lot of vanished talent, even for a talent-rich program, and the departure of McCartney after thirteen seasons surely raises questions about CU's stability. Give Neuheisel this: He's leaping in with both feet. For the first time since 1971, the Buffs will employ a 4-3 defense (this experiment produced seven sacks in this January's Fiesta Bowl win over the Irish), and the air is sure to be full of footballs, courtesy of Koy Detmer. The younger brother of former Brigham Young star Ty Detmer, this strong-armed, pinpoint passer was groomed and seasoned for two years behind starter Stewart, and the ascendance of Neuheisel should do him nothing but good.

After all, the rookie head coach was a quarterback at UCLA, and when he later joined his alma mater's coaching staff as a volunteer assistant, he became personal tutor to Troy Aikman, now one of the NFL's premiere performers. But will Detmer have good receivers at the far end of the Buffs' new three-wideout sets? That remains to be seen. Juniors Rae Carruth and James Kidd and sophomore Phil Savoy will be looking at the big shoes of Westbrook and Fauria all season long. Look also for a swift walk-on, redshirt freshman James Davis.

In the end (and it's a long time before we even reach the beginning), it's always the Nebraska game that looms largest on the CU schedule. Carve it in stone: Boulder, October 28, 1995.

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