With Gonzalez back in the leadoff spot after a night off, the Rockies got off to a quick start Wednesday, sparked by his first-inning triple to right-center. Gonzalez came home on Seth Smith's single to center, and the two teams were off and running on a back-and-forth exchange of runs and leads.
"Give credit where credit's due -- he's an electric player," manager Jim Tracy said of Gonzalez. "I remember back a few months ago questions being asked as to why I was continuing to play the guy [when he was hitting .202 at the break]. You're getting the answer now as to why. This is a guy that is growing right before your eyes. Guys like this don't come around every day. Any of the five major tools that you'd want to talk about, there's nothing that this kid is not capable of doing. He's going to be a scary offensive player."
The Rockies are 51-16 when Gonzalez starts, and 18-6 when he hits leadoff, lending credence to the notion that the spark plug at the top of the order has had a lot to do with turning the Rockies around from a 20-32 record in the NL West cellar on June 3 to 90-68, four games up in the Wild Card race. They are just 2 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the division with their final three games of the season in L.A.
"The funny thing is I don't think he's anywhere close to where he can be," Tulowitzki said of Gonzalez. "Speaking from experience, there's still a lot of things to learn and you can get better in a lot of areas. I see that with him. Even though he's holding his own up here, I see little things here and there that he can get so much better at and become -- instead of a star -- a superstar in this game."
The game seesawed back and forth until the Rockies pulled ahead by three on a two-run homer over the right-field scoreboard that found Todd Helton raising his arm with emotion as he rounded first base. Brad Hawpe drilled a two-out double to left-center and Yorvit Torrealba knocked him in with a single to center.
The Brewers were paced by leadoff homers from Prince Fielder in the second and by Mike Cameron in the fourth, and they scratched another couple of runs off starter Jason Hammel, but the right-hander became the fifth Rockies starter with 10 wins after watching the team win eight times in games he started but received a no-decision.
"I was joking with [Josh Fogg] about that after the game," Hammel said. "He said, 'Every time you pitch good, you don't get a decision, so why not try and pitch bad?' It's funny, I wasn't trying to do it. Tonight, my fastball command wasn't there. But that's how baseball works. The guys came through with a lot of runs, and then [Seth Smith's] great play in the fifth for me -- that's where it all turned right there."
Smith's defensive gem almost seemed inspired by a bit of scoreboard watching. For the second successive night, the Rockies turned in a big inning while watching the Braves fall to the Marlins. Tuesday night, the offense came alive as the Marlins played spoiler to the Braves, and Wednesday, it was the defense that took flight when Florida's 5-4 win flashed on the scoreboard. Smith caught a Casey McGehee drive against the left-field fence and made the relay to Tulowitzki and Helton to double-up Ryan Braun at first, ending the inning and protecting a one-run lead.
Hammel got Fielder swinging at strike three twice, and left with a 5-4 lead, sweating it out as the bullpen held the Brewers down before the Rockies finally widened their lead in the sixth. Ian Stewart singled and later scored from third on a wild pitch, and Gonzalez drove his 13th homer of the season into the first deck in right. Tulowitzki's two-run shot in the seventh provided plenty of padding for Hammel in his final start of the regular season.
"I'm tickled to death for Jason Hammel," Tracy said. "I give him an awful lot of credit from the standpoint of his growth from the start of the season to where we're at now. The way that game unfolded and as much traffic as he was dealing with in the early part of the game, I really believe there were times in the early part of the season where, by the third inning, I would have been out there to remove him. But he hung right in there."
And now, after 158 games, the Rockies have hung around and given themselves a chance at the division -- and at least a tie for the Wild Card. A win at home in Thursday's finale would cap an inconceivable turnaround.
"We won our 90th ballgame tonight," Tracy said after matching the franchise record. "That's enough said. That speaks volumes about what we were able to accomplish over four and a half months. That's not easy to do. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of competitive edge day in and day out knowing the mountain that you have to get up over. But 90-68 after being 20-32 on June 3, that's putting yourself in a special place."