For two out of the last three summers, the Colorado Rockies amazingly saved their best baseball for late in the season. Unfortunately for Rockies fans this summer, their season is more reminiscent of recent Broncos and Nuggets seasons than their own.
When did Denver sports teams become a collection of front runners?
First off, no one front runs quite like the Denver Broncos. Even a franchise-altering coaching change couldn't change that. Going back to 2006, the Broncos have folded like deck chairs after getting off to great starts. In 2006, the Broncos won nine of their first 11 games, only to lose five of their final seven and miss playoffs. In 2008, the Broncos would win four of their first five but finish the season with three straight losses and another missed postseason.
And most famously, after firing Broncos coaching staple Mike Shanahan for rookie coach Josh McDaniels prior to the 2009 campaign, the Broncos jumped out to a startling 6-0 start to kick off the season only to become the first team in 40-something years to lose eight of their last 10 after beginning 6-0. Oh, and they missed the playoffs again, too. Most embarrassingly, the Broncos lost the most winnable of games, notably to NFL cellar dwellers like Oakland, Kansas City and Washington.
The Nuggets, not known for being front runners in the Broncos sense of the term, have had a propensity to give away gimme games down the stretch themselves. In 2008, the Nuggets cost themselves a higher playoff seed (read: and the crucially important right to avoid the Lakers in the NBA's first round) by dropping must-win games against NBA also-rans Sacramento and Seattle during the final week of the season.
And last season, a sick George Karl and an injured Kenyon Martin - combined with a sickly coaching performance by interim head coach Adrian Dantley and poor leadership in Karl's absence from Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony - resulted in the Nuggets playing .500 ball for the last month of the season, just weeks after solidly holding onto the Western Conference's two-spot for much of the season and giving the Lakers a run for their money for the first third of the 2009-10 campaign.
(It of course must be noted that the Nuggets played like anything but a front runner during the 2008-09 season when they got within a few bad inbounds plays away from appearing in their first NBA Finals. Broncos fans would kill for a performance like that these days.)
Enter the 2010 Rockies.
Not known for playing like gutless cowards like the recent Broncos teams we've seen or clueless individuals like some recent Nuggets squads, the recent incarnation of the Rockies have represented what's best about sports in Denver, and sports in general. (I said as much in my debut column for this site just two weeks ago.) Instead of cutting and running when games looked out of hand, these Rockies seemed to routinely gut out wins. Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals.
And yet, only weeks removed from being within one game of the NL West Division-leading San Diego Padres, the Rockies' bats have gone cold, arms have gone soft, gloves have gone careless and they find themselves eight games back of San Diego and five-and-a-half games out of the Wild Card spot (prior to games played July 28).
In other words, the Rockies are performing a damn good impersonation of the Broncos and Nuggets right now, and the comparisons between the Denver franchises are eerily similar:
Just like the Nuggets, where Melo was being anointed as an MVP candidate through the first third of the 2009-10 NBA season, Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was assumed to be a Cy Young Award candidate until two pitching starts ago.
Just like the Broncos McDaniels was being hailed as the NFL's Coach of the Year through the first half of the 2009 NFL season, Rockies skipper Jim Tracy was being mentioned in any Manager of the Year conversations.
Just like when the Nuggets' defensive "quarterback" K-Mart went down with injuries and the Nuggets started slipping in the standings, so have the Rockies in the absence of their defensive stalwart, Troy Tulowitzki. And even though K-Mart came back eventually, it was too little, too late. Same could be said of Tulo if the Rox keep losing games to the likes of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It begs the question: Should Denver sports fans be concerned that there's something systemically wrong with our beloved teams that finds them in free fall when the games are most important but the grind of the season is at its peak? Certainly, the Broncos, Nuggets and Rockies recent pattern of folding down the stretch is mostly pure coincidence, right?
The Broncos, Nuggets, Rockies and Avalanche have one important thing in common that cannot be overlooked: they play in the smallest US sports market to have all four professional sports teams (plus a fifth if you include the MLS's Colorado Rapids). This means there are less corporate dollars to go around for the luxury suites and sponsorship revenue that buys a big-name free agent in the offseason or swings a trade for a big-talent player midseason when a team needs a fresh jolt of energy from a star newcomer. Given this, the Broncos' payroll rests in the lower half of the NFL's 32 teams, the Nuggets try at all costs to stay below the NBA's onerous "tax" line and the Rockies, abnormally for them given their history of small payrolls, are right in the middle of total payroll compared to their competitors in Major League Baseball.
But moderate payrolls don't always result in missed postseasons or long losing streaks. How many times have we seen a small market/small payroll team shock the sports world (see the 2007 Rockies)? All sporting seasons turn into a grind as they creep along, and it's at the latter stages of a sporting season that players must dig deeper, coaches must inspire creatively and game plan differently.
The Rockies have been able to do this better than any team in any sport for two of the last three seasons. But having watched them emulate their fellow Denver sports franchises as of late, I'm concerned it's not going to be three out of four.