Tulowitzki a leader at highest level

Tulowitzki a leader at highest level

PHOENIX -- Officials in a T-ball league around Sunnyvale, Calif., were the first to not keep Troy Tulowitzki, then a tyke of 5 or 6, in his place.

"He would cover every position," his father and longtime coach, Ken Tulowitzki, recalled this summer. "If there was a popup to third base, he'd run to third base to get it. If there was a ground ball toward second base or in the middle, he'd go get it. He just wanted to make the outs.

"I had a safety coordinator come up to us one time and say, 'Hey, make sure this kid stays in his position.' I said, 'How's that going to happen? If he can get the ball, he can get the ball.' So, anyway, they moved him up a level."

There is no higher level for Tulowitzki, but even the Major Leagues can barely contain his outsized talent. Tulowitzki celebrated his 23rd birthday working out with his Rockies teammates on Wednesday in preparation for Thursday night's Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Diamondbacks.

The Rockies' good-natured attempts to remind Tulowitzki he's a rookie don't repress him either.

After finding out that Tulowitzki admires the Yankees' Derek Jeter so much that he got an autograph -- during a series that the Rockies swept and Tulowitzki homered off Roger Clemens -- they spiffed themselves up with Jeter's signature cologne, 'Driven,' and left him several bottles. Noting Tulowitzki's photographic memory of just about every at-bat of his life, they quizzed him and came up with a running total of his hits, which is updated each game on handmade total sheets hanging in his locker at Coors Field.

Stories of Tulowitzki's before-his-time leadership qualities have taken a legendary bent -- as in, he says, "blown out of proportion." So this week, a teammate -- Tulowitzki immediately fingered utilityman Jamey Carroll -- made a photocopy of the captain's "C" with tiny stars beneath it, which is being used on NFL jerseys this season, and taped it to his batting practice shirt.

Tulowitzki laughs good-naturedly at all the jabs, and gives more than his share back.

But on the field, no one limits him.

During the regular season, Tulowitzki batted .291 and set an NL record for rookie shortstops with 24 home runs, and played good enough defense to insert himself into the Gold Glove discussion, even though a rookie at his position has never won it in either league.

Tulowitzki went 2-for-12 during the Rockies' three-game sweep of the Phillies in the NL Division Series. But one of his hits was a solo shot during a 10-5 victory in Game 2, and he drove in another run on a bases-loaded walk.

In many ways, Tulowitzki, the seventh overall pick in 2005 out of Long Beach State, is the T-ball kid, only older. He'd still take a foul line-to-foul line range on popups if he could, and his anticipation, 6-foot-3 frame and strong arm allow him to make plays some shortstops can't.

"The area he can run around is really huge," Rockies second baseman Kazuo Matsui said through translator Yoshita Ono. "Shortstop is kind of the main infield position. Moving around like him is really great."

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Tulowitzki is proud that the real estate he covers is one of the many reasons for the Rockies' outstanding defensive season. They posted the highest fielding percentage in baseball history, .98925. It's something he's been part of before.

"It's awesome," Tulowitzki said. "I take great pride in being the shortstop and known as the leader on the field. It was the same thing in college.

"At Long Beach State my sophomore year, we led the nation in fielding. My coach came up to me and congratulated all of us, and made it a point to say it was something he was most proud of in his coaching career, having a defensive team that was No. 1 in the nation. We got an award, and he has that up in his office. Every time I go in there and see that, to have been part of it means something extra special."

While Tulowitzki would prefer to talk about his team's fielding achievements, there are also some individual statistics he should be proud of. The rookie led all Major League shortstops with a .987 fielding percentage with just 11 errors on 834 chances. Perhaps even more impressive is that the next most total chances for a shortstop was Jhonny Peralta with 720 -- 114 less than Tulowitzki, who also led all shortstops in assists, putouts and double plays.

It's fitting that the biggest series in Rockies history begin at Chase Field, since that's where Tulowitzki is credited with shocking the team into a new attitude.

Tulowitzki hit .240 in a 25-game trial at the end of last season, which led the club to announce he would compete with Clint Barmes for the starting job in Spring Training. Although he maintained a take-charge attitude on the field, not shying away from pointed words to teammates when he thought things were lax, Tulowitzki stayed quiet in the clubhouse.

But the Rockies struggled early. Tulowitzki himself started slowly, dipping to .188 on April 27. But Tulowitzki had the Majors' 13th unassisted triple play on April 29 and quickly built his batting average to respectable and went beyond.

The team had dropped 2-of-3 at home against the Royals, then fell to the Diamondbacks, 6-5, on May 21 to fall to its low-water mark, 18-27.

It was after that game, manager Clint Hurdle recalled, that Tulowitzki said in the clubhouse, "Enough is enough," and said it "loudly." Older teammates have noted Tulowitzki's passion at that time.

Sheepish grins aren't Tulowitzki's style. But he gave one when reminded Wednesday of that inspirational night. He did say it in the clubhouse, said it in an interview, too. But he takes no credit for shaking the team in its spikes.

"It was just said amongst some guys all around and spread around," he said. "It wasn't like I called a big meeting or something like that. It's kind of gotten blown out of proportion. I think everybody felt the same.

"But it was something I said."

So something actually is bigger than Tulowitzki's actions. That's rare.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.