From the beginning, that big white clock outside Coors Field has had a mind of its own. So at 3:54 last Thursday afternoon, this unreliable timepiece assured the gathering throngs on Blake Street that it was 3 p.m. By evening, 54 minutes were still missing in action and, for all we know, they still are.

Inside the ballpark, though, no member of the Colorado Rockies--from the skipper to the batboys--had any doubt about what time it was last Thursday. It was Crunch Time. Later-Than-You-Think-Time. The Get-Serious Hour. Suddenly, it was mid-August in a third-year team's first-ever pennant race--high time to prove you are the real thing.

"Let's have a little get-together," steely-eyed Larry Walker suggested as the Rockies' regular starting eight finished stretching and grabbed some wood for batting practice. With that, an impromptu stack of batting-gloved hands took shape over the on-deck circle and 15 or 16 million dollars' worth of ballplayers put their heads together for a moment, murmuring. Then they suddenly cried out, all together, "Yeah!" and the expensive huddle broke. Clearly, it was time to get moving.

The Rox had just limped back into town following their disheartening "all-humidity" road trip, a nine-game fiasco in which they dropped three straight one-run decisions to the red-hot Marlins in the pea soup of Joe Robbie Stadium, managed one win in three tries (a 16-4 blowout, no less) against the formidable Atlanta Braves (who always seem to have plenty of coolant in their pipes when they face Colorado), then careered on to sticky Cincinnati, where the Central Division-leading Reds smothered them twice in three games--including an 11-3 drubbing in which Reds outfielder Reggie Sanders hit three consecutive home runs off Bryan Rekar and David Nied.

Meanwhile, the Rockies' own famous bats had wilted in the heat. Late in the road trip, the club went twenty innings without scoring, and it took a 6-4 win in Cincy on the last day to lift their heads off their chests. The reckoning: two and seven; five and a half games lost in the standings since August 5. Worst of all, the Rockies had yielded first place in the National League West for the first time since early July and now trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers--the team of sushi-munching fans and souvenir-baseball barrages--by two games.

"Yeah, I think we lose our confidence on the road trip," Andres Galarraga allowed. "We not hitting together, we lose the concentration like that. And that doesn't do anything for the pitching. Oh, yeah. We really, really happy to be home. Everybody feelin' good. Everybody feelin' happy. Everybody ready to go."

But the shell shock hadn't completely dissipated. The club was so travel-weary on Thursday that one beleaguered relief pitcher forgot where he was and mechanically put on his gray road uniform. "That's how long we've been gone," manager Don Baylor lamented. But now the Rockies would play ten straight games at Coors Field--their longest homestand of the season--while Tommy Lasorda's Dodgers hit the road for eleven. And that gave Baylor cautious hope.

"It'd be great to win ten in a row--that would be the best-case scenario," he said. "Nine out of ten. I don't think we can afford to go five and five. I don't think we can do that...I wouldn't look at it as a must-win situation every day, but there are no throwaway games once you move on toward September. Every game is important now. This is not 1993. It's not like when you're 25, 30 games back. We're two back."

Whether it was due to Larry Walker's "little get-together" or the roaring sea of 48,071 fans (season sellout number 33, wouldn't you know?) or the comfort of home cooking, the Rockies came across Thursday night. And across. And across. Like nothing had ever gone wrong. Like the all-humidity trip had never been. They spotted Cubs starter Jaime Navarro two runs in the second before turning back into the Blake Street Bombers once again. Galarraga solo-homered in the second--his 24th--cutting the Cubs' lead to 2-1. Kingery, Bichette and the Big Cat scored in the fourth: 4-2. Bichette stroked his third homer in as many games--his league-leading 29th of the year--in the fifth, and the homeboys simply blew it open in the sixth with four runs on five hits: 9-2.

Window dressing? Feel-Good Time? The Rockies' fourth bombardier, third-baseman Vinny Castilla, hit his 26th homer of the year over the center-field fence amid a three-run seventh. The final score was another Coors Field adding-machine job: Rox 12, Cubs 5, with the win going to a rookie named Roger Bailey, making his first-ever start in the big leagues.

Those two facts from last Thursday--another familiar power surge in the heart of the Rockies' batting order and a "W" in the record book for a young pitcher no one has ever heard of--are likely to tell the tale of the team's fate for the remainder of this surprising season. Going into Tuesday's game with Pittsbugh, the Awesome Fawesome of Bichette, Walker, Galarraga and Castilla had hit 110 home runs in 107 games--most of them in freaky, power-friendly Coors Field--and for the first time since the 1927 Yankees, three players from the same team were ranked first through third in a league's home-run standings.

"Oh, yeah. We hit really, really good here," Galarraga said with a gleam in his eye. "And everybody come here knows."

They also know--just as manager Baylor does--that the Rockies' pitching looks like the Lusitania just now. After hurting his suitably named "left oblique" muscle, moody Marvin Freeman joined a disabled list already inhabited by $3 million man Billy Swift and fellow starter Joe Grahe. The latter two have been long-throwing on the side, but they won't even get back to the practice mound for at least another week.

David Nied, once the golden boy of the staff, made his first major-league appearance of the year in Cincinnati last week, and it didn't bode well: He gave up five runs on five hits in three innings, including a pair of homers. After 51 days of inactivity and rehab, star reliever Bruce Ruffin will re-emerge with the big club Tuesday, but Baylor is not counting on him to be the lone stopper.

Starters Kevin Ritz, Armando Reynoso and rookie Bryan Rekar are reliable if inconsistent. As for millionaire New York Mets transplant Bret Saberhagen, the winner of two Cy Young Awards, he hasn't exactly burned opponents down. In his first Rockies start, he beat the Dodgers here on August 3, then got two no-decisions--including a shocker in Florida in which his 4-1 lead evaporated in the bottom of the ninth. On Friday, he gave up six runs while retiring just one batter in the first inning of a mutant 26-7 win by the Cubs.

Without Ruffin, Baylor's bullpen has been chaotic through the dog days. Five or six separate relievers have one save apiece, and putative anchormen Darren Holmes and Curtis Leskanic have proved unsteady of late, so Baylor now must cut and paste wins together any way he can. By cleverly spotting his relievers. By occasionally starting guys like Roger Bailey, "hoping and wishing that you can get six or seven innings out of him."

On Thursday night Baylor got eight innings out of Bailey before he gave up a three-run blast to Chicago's Sammy Sosa. Luckily, the Blake Street Bombers were also on the job, stoking the home fires. And that's the way it will have to be if a third-year expansion team with a ravaged pitching staff is going to make the playoffs. Luckily, 24 of the club's last 40 games are at home, while Los Angeles has to play the same number away from Chavez Ravine. By Monday, the teams were dead even in baseball's only remaining divisional race.

Slugger Bichette, perhaps, sees things as clearly as anyone. "I don't think anybody but us expected us to be in this situation at this time of the year, and we feel real good about that," he said. "After the bad road trip, all the doubters were saying `I told you so,' but we have plenty of life left in us to put a rush on at the end. And the schedule goes in our favor. If we can win this thing, who cares if we never win another game on the road?"

The big clock on the stadium wall may not be right, but the homeboys all know: It's Crunch Time.


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