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The Waiting Game

For the Rockies, August can be the cruelest month.

By nature, baseball players tend to be brass-bound optimists. Tuned to the long haul, they keep their hitting shoes laced tight amid soul-killer losing streaks, try to ignore bad omens and play through pain. No single win ever gets them too high, and they take a couple of losses with the stoicism of battle-weary soldiers. The regular season, after all, spans six months and 162 games. A ball club with heart can reinvent itself half a dozen times; a good club can do it when it really counts -- in the crucial last weeks of the year, when every run looms large and the grounds crew tries to remember where it stored the red, white and blue bunting.

With just over forty games left in another mediocre season, the Colorado Rockies' optimism is under siege, and the players are clearly feeling the heat -- from the parched August skies, from their fans, from within themselves. "We're still within striking distance," says an obviously spooked Larry Walker, the three-time National League batting champion and seven-time Gold Glove outfielder. "The most important thing is playing in October. I'd rather have a bad year and make it to the playoffs than do well individually and have it end in September. October: That's what it's all about. But we have our work cut out for us."

For the Rockies to make their first playoff appearance since 1995, several nearly impossible things will have to happen. First, they must leapfrog the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West to finish second behind the seemingly uncatchable San Francisco Giants. The best second-place team in the National League, the 64-53 Philadelphia Phillies, will have to collapse like a matchbox in a hurricane. And the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos will need to come down with West Nile virus. For the moment, the Rockies are a distant seventh in the league's wild-card race behind Philadelphia (which was part of the Rockies' disappointing 3-3 home stand at Coors Field last week), and not even their legendary home-field dominance -- strongest in the big leagues -- is likely to pull them out of the doldrums. The Rox play nine of their next thirteen games at home, but the opposition will be ultra-tough: three games with Florida, followed by six against the two best teams in baseball, the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco.

No wonder Larry Walker shaved his head last year. Probably keeps him from tearing his hair out in a down season where he is hitting only .291, with a paltry ten home runs.

Last week, manager Clint Hurdle (who took the reins from the fired Buddy Bell in late April 2002) found himself looking up at the league's elite with grudging admiration and looking sideways at his own players with a mixture of bafflement and annoyance. Following a discouraging 7-2 loss to Philadelphia in the opening game of the series, in which his best young pitcher, Shawn Chacon, failed for the fifth straight start to get his twelfth win, Hurdle shook his head. "There are reasons we are a .500 club," he said. "We're not able to overcome mistakes. I said it on day one, reiterated it through the All Star Break and I'm talking about the same thing now: Until we become more consistent with our starting pitching, [until] we can go through the rotation a couple of times and get quality starts from everybody and get consistent with our defense and our offense -- until then, we're a .500 club. We've got to improve dramatically. Because .500 is not going to get us anywhere."

That mediocrity goes deeper than one game, of course. It goes to injuries, to heartbreak, maybe even to bad karma, and you could feel all of that in the silent Rockies clubhouse after Chacon's loss to the Phils. Colorado had just returned from a nightmarish 2-4 road trip in which they lost four straight one-run games, during which streak they blew two ninth-inning leads, then lost to Pittsburgh 1-0 on a game-ending double-play call that umpire Tim Welke later admitted was dead wrong. Earlier in the game, Walker and fellow outfielder Preston Wilson smacked into each other with such force that both of them fell groaning on the warning track.

Little wonder that Chacon's sixth loss of the year -- he hasn't won since June 23, shortly before he became just the second Rockies pitcher in history to be named a National League All Star -- brought gloom to the home clubhouse. In the shower-humid air, among the half-stripped rolls of athletic tape, a pair of young Rockies stared glumly into the plates of lasagna and meatballs they'd ladled up from the players' buffet. Unsmiling, the clubhouse man tossed three or four wet towels into a laundry basket, then sprayed a table with Windex. A lone bottle of André champagne sat atop a TV set, unopened for good reason.

In front of his locker, the defeated Chacon sat on a folding chair with ten pounds of ice strapped to his right shoulder and forearm. "I don't know what it is," he said, speaking in a near whisper. "Some guys have bad Julys, or bad Aprils, or Mays. I guess I have bad Augusts. Hopefully, this year I can turn it around for the sake of our ball club. There's still time, but for us it's getting down to the wire." Chacon lost again Sunday, to Pittsburgh.

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