DENVER -- We'll never really know if the Colorado Rockies returned from their mid-October hiatus a different team, or if they're simply not in Boston's class. But somewhere between the National League pennant celebration and Carl Yastrzemski throwing out the first pitch before Game 1 at Fenway Park, the Rocky Mountain Magic Show came to an end.
Remember when joy reigned supreme at Coors Field? It's been replaced by desperation. Colorado trails Boston 3-0 in the World Series, and history shows that all 22 teams that shared the Rockies' plight went down to defeat. As a matter of fact, only three of the 22 even managed to force a Game 5.
In an attempt to avoid a sweep, the Rockies will hand the ball to right-hander Aaron Cook, who hasn't started a big league game since Aug. 10 because of an oblique injury.
"He's definitely fresh,'' said first baseman Todd Helton.
Even if Cook manages to beat Boston, the Rockies' reward will be a Game 5 encounter with Josh Beckett, who's making it his personal mission in October to crush the spirits of every hitter who crosses his path.
If ever a team is entitled to dream, of course, it's the Rockies. When they dropped three straight to Philadelphia and Florida in mid-September to fall 6½ games out in the National League West, they knew every loss had the potential to kill their postseason aspirations.
Backs against the wall -- we've been there before. ... So we're in familiar territory.
--Rockies first baseman Todd Helton
So they simply refused to lose. The Rockies won 13 of their last 14 regular-season games, beat the Padres in a play-in game to claim the National League wild-card berth, then swept the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the NL playoffs to earn a spot in the World Series. Not to mention an eight-day vacation.
"Backs against the wall -- we've been there before,'' Helton said. "Obviously, it wasn't the World Series. But for the last two weeks [of the regular season], it was lose or go home. So we're in familiar territory.''
The difference now is the bounces, timely big plays and ever-present confidence that characterized the Rockies' recent 21-1 run are nowhere in sight. Who knows why things turn so quickly for teams between hot streaks and barren stretches? Last year, when the Tigers returned from an extended layoff and stunk it up in the World Series against St. Louis, the inability of Detroit's pitchers to field grounders or throw the ball to first base with any degree of accuracy was a telling factor in the team's undoing.
The Rockies can point to lots of things. They're hitting .222 in three games against Boston, and if you take out Matt Holliday's five hits in 13 at-bats, they're batting .198 as a team. Brad Hawpe must feel a little better after his ninth-inning triple off Jonathan Papelbon on Saturday night, but he has still whiffed eight times in 13 at-bats in the World Series.
Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Fogg, Colorado's starters in the first three games, have pitched a combined 11 1/3 innings. They've allowed 14 earned runs and 23 hits while throwing a staggering 261 pitches.
Fogg characterized his performance in Colorado's 10-5 loss Saturday as "awful.'' With good reason: Boston's six-run third inning onslaught against Fogg included a two-run single by Daisuke Matsuzaka. And the carnage would have been worse if Holliday hadn't thrown out Manny Ramirez at the plate.
"It's not a question of stuff. The results are what matter, and it was awful,'' Fogg said. "That's the key to baseball -- getting good starting pitching. Obviously they've done it, and we haven't.''
For what it's worth, the Rockies at least showed some spunk in Game 3. They fought back from 6-0 to pull within 6-5 on Holliday's three-run homer against the previously unhittable Hideki Okajima in the seventh.
Holliday had a chance to do it again in the eighth with the Red Sox up 9-5. With two runners on base, he took a healthy cut at a first-pitch fastball from Papelbon. But the pitch tailed inside at the last instant, and Holliday's bid landed in Manny Ramirez's glove just short of the warning track.
"He's a fastball pitcher, and he ran it a little bit off my barrel,'' Holliday said. "Maybe a quarter-inch more barrel, and it's a home run.''
Maybe if the Rockies had been able to steal that low-scoring Game 2 at Fenway Park, things would be different now. But they're staring a harsh reality in the face. The Red Sox are the superior team all-around, and it's less a question of "if'' than "when'' for Colorado.
So will the young Rockies eventually look back and feel warm all over in recalling their improbable late run, or will it be tough to swallow playing so poorly and being so thoroughly outclassed on the biggest stage of all?
"We'll have time to reflect on the season when the season is over,'' Holliday said.
Don't look now, but that time has just about arrived.