Rox, D-backs ready to resume rivalry

Rox, D-backs ready to go at it

PHOENIX -- The newest and most underrated rivalry in Major League Baseball takes center stage again this weekend at Coors Field as the defending National League champion Rockies open their home season with a three-game series against the D-backs, the team that edged them by a half-game to win the NL West title in 2007.

Yankees-Red Sox it's not. Nor is it remotely even Dodgers-Giants-ish. Not yet, anyway.

"It very well could be," Colorado skipper Clint Hurdle said. "But you can't manipulate rivalries, or create them on your own. It just doesn't work that way. We had enough circumstances last year that might make it seem like things are headed in that direction, but I think there is a mutual respect that goes along with it."

The last matchup between the two teams was this past October in the NL Championship Series when the then red-hot Rox swept the D-backs right out of the postseason. The Red Sox returned the favor a little more than a week later by running the table against Colorado in the World Series.

On Friday night, Arizona right-hander Micah Owings is slated to start against left-hander Mark Redman in the return to Coors of a Rockies squad that last October played into its first World Series. They did so on the strength of one of the hottest season-ending streaks in baseball history -- 14 out of 15 to clinch the NL's Wild Card berth in the bottom of the 13th of Game 163 over the Padres, and 21 out of 22 through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

This weekend there will be the ring ceremony and the NL pennant will be unfurled. Those are the accouterments of what the D-backs are longing to accomplish this season. The teams will then do it all over again next weekend at Chase Field. And when the six games are concluded, fans may be able to get a sense of where the race might be heading this season in the NL West.

"There are a lot of similarities to the teams," D-backs manager Bob Melvin said. "Their younger guys are probably a little bit farther along with their development at the big league level, yet we had as much success last year. There are a lot of similarities in the group, and I would suspect that after what happened last year there would be more competition, rivalry, whatever you want to call it."

Similarities abound.

Both teams have young ace starting pitchers: Right-hander Brandon Webb for the D-backs, the 2006 NL Cy Young Award winner, vs. left-hander Jeff Francis for the Rox, who has to be considered high on the list of potential 2008 Cy Young candidates.

Young stud shortstops in Stephen Drew for the D-backs and Troy Tulowitzki for the Rox. A pair of guys who can go get it in center field in Chris Young for the D-backs and Willy Taveras for the Rox. Veteran presence in left fielder Eric Byrnes for Arizona and first baseman Todd Helton for Colorado.

The two teams are expansion era cronies. The Rockies' history dates back to 1993 and the D-backs to 1998. A decade later the clubs were finally competitive in the same season. Just to prove the point, the D-backs, at 93-76, hold a decided edge in the all-time regular-season series between the two teams. But the Rockies prevailed 10-8 last season and were 14-8 if the NLCS is included.

The two teams played at Coors on the final weekend of the regular season, when the D-backs clinched at least the Wild Card on Friday night, the division title before even taking the field on Saturday, and the Rockies clinched a berth in the Wild Card playoff game on Sunday.

Isn't this what rivalries are really all about?

"I think there's definitely a rivalry there," Byrnes said. "You could sense it even before we met them in the Championship Series. The Dodgers have always had the Padres and the Dodgers have always had the Giants, and even Giants-Padres, there's something about that intrastate thing. We've always been the stepchildren, both of us. We were left on the outside, and all it took was for the two of us to get good in the same year to create a rivalry. And I think it's a bona fide rivalry now. I think it will be one as long as the teams continue to play good baseball."

"I think it's a bona fide rivalry now."
-- Eric Byrnes

Byrnes certainly helped add fuel to that rivalry last postseason, when he called out the Rockies on the off-day between Games 2 and 3 of the NLCS. The D-backs had generally reverted and played poor baseball at home to lose the first two games of the series. Byrnes tried to verbally shift the momentum, which clubhouse leaders do at times.

"I think we're a good team," Byrnes said. "I also don't think the Rockies have outplayed us, because they haven't. Not even close. If anything, I think it's the other way around. They've had a little luck go their way. Definitely the ball has bounced in their direction. But as we've seen before in this game, luck can change real quick."

That luck didn't change, and the Rockies never really paid much attention to the comments because, after all, it is Byrnes.

"We know 'Byrnsie,' and we know he can be a little crazy -- that's just part of his game," Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins said recently. "We know not to take anything he says too seriously or too personally."

All that doesn't mask the fact that there is, of course, a major difference in the clubs, too.

The Rockies bop the ball and the D-backs have to scrounge for runs. Last season, Colorado led the NL with a .280 team batting average and Arizona was dead last at .250. The Rox outscored the D-backs, 860-712 (86-72 in the 18 head-to-head matchups), and outhit them, 1,591-1,350.

Both teams won 90 games, but somehow the D-backs snagged the division title despite scoring 20 fewer runs than they allowed. It was an odd statistical inconsistency that is unlikely to repeat itself.

"That won't happen again this year," Melvin said during Spring Training. "Our offense is going to have to do better than that."

With no appreciable difference in their starting lineup from last season, the D-backs have to hope that their youngsters -- Young, Drew, right-fielder Justin Upton, first baseman Conor Jackson and third baseman Mark Reynolds -- all come of age. The Rockies are again stacked with Helton, left fielder Matt Holliday and Atkins in the middle of a deep lineup.

It certainly should make things more intense.

"We're both young teams that have done things and play the game the right way," Tulowitzki said. "I played against a lot of those guys on the way up, like Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, Chris Young. It seems like we play them 30 or 40 times a year."

Well, make that 18 times this year, beginning on Friday night, but that really is the point when it comes to rivalries, isn't it?

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for reporters Thomas Harding and Steve Gilbert contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.