Atkins embraces NLDS opportunity

Atkins embraces NLDS opportunity

PHILADELPHIA -- A baseball season that has offered nothing but cruelty to Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins is suddenly giving him a golden chance.

Atkins entered the season with a .298 career batting average, but hit only .226 this year. Yet he finds himself a key player as the Rockies prepare for Wednesday afternoon's Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the defending World Series champion Phillies.

Philadelphia will start left-handers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the first two games at Citizens Bank Park. Atkins has hit .268 against lefties this season. That's nowhere near the .309 average he posted against lefties entering the season, but it makes him a better matchup than left-handed-hitting Ian Stewart, who started at third base much of this season.

Not only that, but against the Phillies, Atkins has hit .304 (7-for-23) with a third of his nine home runs this season. So manager Jim Tracy put Atkins in the fifth position in his Game 1 lineup.

"Anytime you have a bad season, you look forward to the playoffs so you can turn things around," Atkins said. "When we were leading the Wild Card, I realized the season had a chance to go a little bit further, and I had a chance to help the team."

Atkins' chance to go from regular-season dud to postseason sensation was not lost on Tracy.

"More times than not in a series like this, somebody that you least expect becomes a new national hero," Tracy said. "Atty has hit really well in this park [.292, three HRs, 10 RBIs in 13 regular-season games]. Atty could possibly be that guy of national distinction. He does have that capability in him."

Tracy's lineup has switch-hitting rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler leading off, followed by two left-handed hitters -- left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and first baseman Todd Helton. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Atkins and catcher Yorvit Torrealba will hit from the right. Left-handed-hitting right fielder Brad Hawpe, who struggled during the second half after an All-Star first half, will bat seventh, followed by right-handed-hitting second baseman Clint Barmes and right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez.

It seemed when Atkins was at his lowest, he found happy days against the Phillies.

By the time of the Rockies' April 10 home opener against the Phillies, Atkins was 0-for-12. In his second at-bat, Atkins homered to left for two runs against Hamels. It was a key moment in the Rockies' 10-3 victory. Atkins also homered in the next game, against Phillies right-hander Brett Myers.

But Atkins had dark days more often than not. Tracy's decision to go with Stewart, who had his struggles average-wise but hit 25 home runs, came at the beginning of the team's turnaround.

"Obviously I'm disappointed with the way my season went individually, but you can't ask for anything more than the team to be in the playoffs, and I'll have a chance to help the team that way," said Atkins, who hit .231 with two doubles when the Rockies swept the Phillies in three games in the 2007 NLDS. "You can't really complain about lack of playing time when the team is winning."

Stewart, who hit .178 against left-handers during the regular season, found himself adopting the attitude that has kept Atkins sane during the regular season.

"I look forward to playing in the postseason, but I understand," Stewart said. "If they want to counter the lefty with some righties, then that's great. As long as we win games. If they need me to come in late in games for defense, that's fine, also."

Now it's Atkins' time.

"That's the way baseball is," he said. "You do bad all year long, but you never know what will happen in the playoffs."

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