In the top of the seventh inning of a tied game, with runners on first and second, nobody out, and the count full, Chipper Jones hit a line drive at Tulowitzki, who snared the ball in flight, stepped on second to double up Kelly Johnson, and tagged Edgar Renteria between first and second for an unassisted triple play.
Just to be safe, Tulowitzki fired the ball to Todd Helton at first, but three outs was sufficient on the play.
"Once he made the play and I thought we had four outs, I wondered how that worked for the next inning," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "But I think we had it figured out. Those aren't things you work on or plan for, so when they happen, it kind of catches everybody for a second."
A second was about half the time it took for Tulowitzki to retire the side, taking advantage of aggressive baserunning on a 3-2 count.
"It's amazing," Tulowitzki said once he'd had time to put the play in perspective. "It kind of just fell into my lap, but I'll take it."
It was just the 13th unassisted triple play in Major League history, and all those who witnessed it shared the heart-stopping moment of inescapable wonder the play produced.
"As soon as I saw the runners take off, you think of a triple play, but it rarely ever happens," Tulowitzki said, recalling his thoughts on the split-second reaction play. "Line drive right at me, caught it, one out. Tagged the base for two and tagged the runner for three. It happened so quick."
And the extra throw to first?
"I just wanted to make sure," Tulowitzki laughed. "I was trying to be the first person ever to get about five outs."
The first three came too quickly for Johnson to turn around, as he passed Tulowitzki on his way to third, and even with the play in front of him, Renteria couldn't slam the breaks on in time before Tulowitzki took a few steps and tagged him out as he neared second.
"I just ran right into it," Renteria explained. "It was a 3-2 pitch. We were running on the pitch. I think that's the only chance [for an unassisted triple play] -- first and second, running on the pitch, line drive."
Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday had the same thought, albeit before the ball was put in play.
"Actually, I was just thinking, 'I wonder if they're running here, 3-2,' and then I thought, 'Well that would be nice if they are and we get a line drive right at somebody,'" Holliday said. "Not that I predicted it or anything. I was just thinking that, so it was kind of weird. I watched it unfold right before my eyes."
Unassisted triple plays
Tulowitzki's early offensive struggles had overshadowed the rookie shortstop's defensive work, but he has a strong, accurate arm and has shown tremendous range in the field, helping to solidify the Rockies' defense, currently ranked best in the Majors in team fielding percentage. He makes a habit of working on unusual plays during infield practice, "trying to do plays that are very difficult or something someone's never seen before," as he put it.
An unassisted triple play is about as rare a feat as baseball can offer, and Tulowitzki has joined a legacy. Twelve have been turned in the regular season, and second baseman Bill Wambsganss turned one in the 1920 World Series. To put it in perspective with the game's other great rarity, there have been 17 perfect games pitched, including Don Larsen's in the 1956 World Series. Even the "natural cycle," hitting a single, double, triple and home run in order in one game is more common, having occurred 14 times in the big leagues.
Eight of the 13 unassisted triple plays have been performed by shortstops, and the last unassisted triple play was completed by then-Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal on Aug. 10, 2003. The first seven unassisted triple plays came between 1909 and 1927. Jimmy E. Cooney of the Cubs and Johnny Neun of the Tigers performed the feat on back-to-back days on May 30-31, 1927, and it was 41 years until the Senators' Ron Hansen executed the next unassisted triple play. There have been a total of six since 1968.
Ironically, the last time the Braves hit into a triple play was June 15, 1996 against the Dodgers. The batter? Chipper Jones, who popped to shortstop Juan Castro on the left-field grass. Castro threw to second baseman Delino DeShields to force out Marquis Grissom, and DeShields threw to first baseman Eric Karros to force Mark Lemke.
Sunday's triple play was also the second executed by the Rockies in their 15-year history, following a 3-6 triple play against St. Louis on April 10, 2003. Orlando Palmeiro lined to Helton on that play, and Helton threw to shortstop Jose Hernandez at second, who doubled up Scott Rolen before tagging out Tino Martinez on his way from first to second.
"It's something I'll always remember," Tulowitzki said of Sunday's play, which highlighted a 12-inning victory in which Tulowitzki also tripled in two runs, scored the tying run in the ninth, and made seven assists and seven putouts all told.
"There was a lot of action. I can't remember the last time I had this much action defensively [or] offensively, between relays, a triple play, [and] swinging the bat decent. It's up there, definitely, in my professional career."
This rarest of feats would be near the top of any player's highlight reel, and 31,445 fans in attendance -- who seemed equally divided between loyalties to the Braves and Rockies -- can count themselves among the luckiest lovers of the game. Odds are, neither Tulowitzki nor the fans will see a play like that again.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.