Hurdle has great expectations in 2008

Hurdle has great expectations in 2008

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Last year, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle amazed his team's fans before the season even began. Just before the season opener, the Rockies announced that Hurdle and general manager Dan O'Dowd had been signed to two-year extensions even though the team hadn't had a winning season since 2000, before Hurdle had even joined the franchise.

Well, Hurdle and his Rockies kept amazing folks all year.

The Rockies seemed to be headed to the same old season when they were 18-27 through May 21. But from that point through the end of the season, only the Yankees were better. And, of course, winning 21-of-22 at the end of the season to force a one-game, 13-inning Wild Card showdown with the Padres before advancing to the World Series.

The organization's patience was vindicated, and now Hurdle has turned his attention to other goals in 2008. For all the Rockies' history as a team that could score runs in a park where exciting games are the norm, the Rockies won because they pitched well and played excellent defense (the 2007 Rockies had the best fielding percentage in baseball history). How much was last season's success a victory for proper baseball?

Hurdle: It was never a question in my mind. I think it just supported everything we believed and everything we had been telling the players. Baseball's a game that you can't reinvent, as much as people try.

There are things you can tweak. Obviously, the offensive thing has become bigger, but it's never going to be the nut. Pitching and defense is always going to be the mechanism that takes you to a championship. We got the people involved who can pitch and play defense.

And our offense is good. I'll go to the wall if anybody talks bad about our offense, because we're so versatile, we have power and we have hit-ability. We led the league in [batting] average and on-base percentage. They don't give those things away. You've got to go earn them.

So for me last year was the completion of a cycle. We've put things in play for a few seasons, but we were able to finish them off last season. Teams playing us the second half of the season and down the stretch knew the Rockies were going to pitch and play defense. There are nights that we can bomb you, but on the defensive end our guys held themselves to a very high standard of execution. They've taken it upon themselves, and there are no alternatives. Were there times you felt a little discouraged while building this team? Given that, how gratifying was last season?

Hurdle: I really never got caught up in that. One thing about it, if it wasn't going to happen with me here, it was going to happen. For the Rockies to play winning baseball, that style is the way it was going to have to be, whether I'm the manager or whoever it was going to be.

So I was happier for ownership, the courage they showed. I'm happy for all the people that have been in it at least as long as I've been in it and longer. They've held fast in believing in something a lot of people didn't believe. They saw a vision a lot of people didn't see. I was humbled by being a small part of something that meant so much to so many different people on so many different levels. When you began preparing for 2008, how delighted were you with the hunger of this team to try to take the next step?

Hurdle: It doesn't surprise me. These guys have taken ownership of this. They have a plan. They have a purpose. They have tremendous respect for the skill sets in that clubhouse of everybody. They are very unselfish.

It should be more of the same. It's them taking the next step. They've been doing that for a long time now. They've been making good decisions for the good of the team for a long time now.

We're fortunate, and I really believe with all my heart, that we have men who are playing this game for all the right reasons. They're playing it because they love it. They're playing it because they're passionate about it. They're playing it because they love the competition. They're playing it because they want to win a world championship.

There are a lot of byproducts that come from that, that are good for your family and good for security. I think they're aware of that, but that's not their nugget. The 2008 team is essentially the same one that finished last year. Do you feel that there is enough competition -- at second base, in the starting rotation and the bullpen, and at catcher -- to keep this club from becoming stale?

Hurdle: Competition is important. I think you have to sprinkle in competition. You look at the areas you can improve upon and bring in people externally if you don't have people internally to stimulate that competition, to keep things with an edge.

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But we've also got so many guys who return to the same positions that want more, all for different reasons. Most of them come back and just want to do better for the team, want to be a part of finding a way to win just four more games. Everybody can improve to some degree. Last year's team proved itself by battling through adversity. Do you look forward to the adversity that 2008 can offer?

Hurdle: No, I don't look forward to it. I think it would be silly to look forward to it. You're going to get it. So you continue to press the game, play the game, and when adversity shows up, you deal with it.

We've built ourselves to be able to handle adversity through the character of the organization, the character of the players, the character of the ownership. Adversity is not something we run from, stick our heads in the sand when it shows up.

I do think that there were times when it was overlooked. We had a good season. Yes, we had a tremendous finish, but we got incrementally better every month of the season, from nine games under the third week of May. Our June was better, our July was better, our August was better.

For me, to overcome the 1-8 road trip (June 22-July 1), to me that was the turning point of the season, the way they handled that, the way they stood up for one another through that. They were coming off an organizational high, sweeping the Yankees (June 19-21), then dealing with four walk-off losses in eight days, and coming back and sweeping the Mets (July 2-4).

I knew we had the right group. I knew they had it, as far as all the intangibles. The Diamondbacks have traded for pitcher Dan Haren. The Padres have added pitcher Mark Prior. The Dodgers and the Giants are known for their solid pitching. When people place low expectations on the Rockies, they point to your pitching. Is your staff overlooked?

Hurdle: I really don't care.

There are so many opinions that go into Spring Training, good and bad. But you know what? A lot of them are wrong. You guys write them every day. How many of them are accurate? You want to do a good study, figure out how many times you're right about throwing something out there.

Nobody keeps score of that, so why pay attention to it?

Haren's got to go pitch. Prior's got to get healthy and pitch. But every year, everybody looks for newer, quicker, faster. Who spent the most money? That's where they look first. We don't. That's not what we do.

Sometimes it plays out, sometimes it doesn't. You've got to be smart with what you do and believe in the people you have. That's what we're trying to maintain here. Haren's a good pitcher, there's no doubt about it.

People were blowing up our pitching all through the year. Look how it finished - 12 different starters the second half of the season, yet no glitches out of the fourth and fifth spots. Look at the records they put up. What will the Colorado Rockies do in 2008?

Hurdle: We will work our backsides off every day to be the best team we can be. At the end of the day we'll evaluate, take a shower, go home and show up the next day ready to play.

We've gotten pretty good at that.

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