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Old 04-01-2007, 12:43 AM   #131
Clockwork Orange
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COLORADO SPRINGS - The Rockies spent the spring getting a glimpse of their new- look lineup.

They liked what they saw.

They have speed at the top with center fielder Willy Taveras and second baseman Kaz Matsui.

They have balanced run production in the middle with a 3- 4-5-6 alignment of right-handed-hitting Garrett Atkins, left- handed-hitting Todd Helton, right-handed-hitting Matt Holliday and left-handed-hitting Brad Hawpe.

And they have the new kids on the block, rookies Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta, who will hit 7-8 and show signs of providing some life at the bottom of the order, where the Rockies have struggled severely in recent years.

"It evolved at its own pace, but I think the guys embraced it," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It already has shown teeth. It was only spring training, but that is the only lab we have to use. It's where we can test things to see if they work."

This test was positive.

The Rockies did finish with a .301 Cactus League average, the sixth best in baseball. They were third in the majors in stolen bases, with 33, two back of the Mets and 21 fewer than the Angels. It was the fourth-highest spring stolen-base total in Rockies history, and their .733 success rate also was the fourth best. They were ninth in the majors in runs scored, with 175, but played a major league- fewest 28 games.

Now comes the challenge of carrying that offensive approach into the regular season, where Hurdle has vowed the Rockies will be more aggressive.

They haven't had 100 stolen bases in any of the past four seasons and haven't had a player steal more than 14 in any of those seasons.

"It's time to open up things a bit," Hurdle said.

The Rockies are ready.

They feel the left-right-left- right combo will provide for offensive explosions, feeding off the speed at the top of the lineup that can be disruptive to the opposition.

"I've never played on a team with that kind of speed, but I have played against teams that had two guys at the top like that, and I know how hard it is," Helton said. "I know the pressure it puts on the defense. When those kinds of guys get on base, you think they are going.

"The pitcher starts worrying about holding the runner and the catcher is trying everything he can to keep him from taking that extra base. It's like last year with (Rafael) Furcal and (Kenny) Lofton in Los Angeles. You were focused on trying to keep them off base."

In their first 14 years of existence, the Rockies have had only six players steal more than 30 bases in a season. Eric Young did it four times. Juan Pierre did it twice. Tom Goodwin, Larry Walker, Ellis Burks and Dante Bichette did it once apiece.

The most successful running team the Rockies had was in 1996, when they had that blend of speed and power and became the only team to surpass the 200 level in stolen bases and home runs in the same season.

Could the Rockies duplicate that this year?

"Let's see how things play out and see what happens," Hurdle said.

Brad Hawpe, for one, believes the presence of Taveras and Matsui will translate into bigger and better things all the way down the lineup.

"It gives us an extra out each inning when you have someone who can steal second base," Hawpe said. "You don't have to bunt him over. It gives you one more shot to pick up a run. Maybe it will be the difference in getting me up one more time or Holliday up one more time."

And of course there is Helton, who has moved back up into the middle of the lineup after finishing last season hitting fifth, where he was coupled with Hawpe, allowing opponents to bring in a left-handed pitcher to face both of them without hesitation.

"Atkins and Holliday had great years last year, but Helton is still the top dog," Hawpe said. "He's healthy and strong this year."

Plus, Holliday might be moved down a spot in the lineup, but he figures to benefit from the move.

"We've got a situation now where if the other team wants to bring in a left-hander to face Todd, Holliday's going to get a shot at him, too, if they want him to stay in and face me," Hawpe said. "That's good for me, because that gives me one more batter to watch him and focus in."
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