The Colorado Rockies will squeeze into the cramped and creaky clubhouse at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, the third leg of a trip they hope is just beginning. They won on Sunday in Denver to force a tiebreaker for the National League West title on Monday in Los Angeles. They lost there against the Dodgers, setting up an elimination game with the other wild-card team, the Chicago Cubs, on Tuesday.
If they win, they can exhale, then wind their way to Milwaukee for a division-series opener on Thursday.
With all of that travel, and so much at stake, the Rockies will probably not reflect on the significance of Tuesday’s setting. But it was to that Wrigley clubhouse that their franchise player retreated on July 27, 2015, in a cloud of confusion and dismay, pulled in the ninth inning of a tight game against the Cubs — creating an opening for Trevor Story.
Story would soon replace Troy Tulowitzki as the cornerstone shortstop for the Rockies. He homered in the ninth inning on Monday at Dodger Stadium, drilling Kenley Jansen’s ninth pitch to him into the right field seats. It was the Rockies’ final run of a 5-2 loss, forcing them into a wild-card game on the road for the second year in a row. They lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks last October, 11-8. Story homered in his last at-bat then, too.
“That game was a lot of fun,” Story, 25, said late in the regular season, before a game at Dodger Stadium. “It was very intense, the atmosphere was crazy, super-loud, winner-take-all, loser goes home. It gave us confidence. We fell behind, we came back and made it close late. Ended up losing, obviously, but it made us super hungry to get back to the postseason.”
Story helped get them there by hitting .291 with 37 home runs, 108 runs batted in and 27 stolen bases. Only one shortstop in major league history — Alex Rodriguez, for Seattle in 1998 — has ever matched all of those numbers in a season.
After leading the N.L. with 191 strikeouts last season, Story made more contact this season and thrived. He still led the Rockies in strikeouts, with 168, but he sharpened his approach and raised his on-base-plus-slugging percentage by 150 points, to .915.
“The tools and talent are off the charts,” said Chris Iannetta, the Rockies’ veteran catcher. “But I think just his ability to command the strike zone has been better — his ability to stay within the zone with what he’s attacking, having a plan. You’re not seeing him chase the pitch up over his head like you used to; you’re not seeing him chase sliders and curveballs in the dirt nearly as much. He’s making guys come to him.”
The Rockies drafted Story from Irving High School in Texas with the 45th overall pick in the 2011 draft — just a few months after they had made Tulowitzki the first major leaguer signed through the 2020 season, with a 10-year, $157.75 million contract.
Tulowitzki was 26 then, and the Rockies were optimistic about their future. They had reached their only World Series in 2007, won a wild-card game in 2009 and posted another winning season in 2010. Tulowitzki wore No. 2 in honor of his baseball hero, Derek Jeter, and the Rockies had made him a similar kind of centerpiece. The biggest risk, they believed, might be a position switch someday.
“We may never get to that, but I wanted to make sure we addressed everything we could run into,” Dan O’Dowd, the general manager at the time, said the next spring. “During the course of this long of a marriage — no different than any relationship — there’s going to be some really great times and there’s going to be some tough times. It’s not going to be all candy and roses all the time.”
Swallowing so much candy quickly became a problem in Denver. Tulowitzki did his part, making four All-Star teams in the first five years of his contract, but the Rockies had a losing record each of those seasons. Then O’Dowd’s successor, Jeff Bridich, surprised Tulowitzki with a trade to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Four players came to Colorado in the deal — including Jose Reyes, who played poorly, served a suspension for domestic violence, and was released — but the biggest outcome was the job that opened up for Story.
“There was a lot of belief in Trevor Story in our organization for many years, and it allowed us to make certain decisions,” Bridich said, referring to the Tulowitzki trade. “If I told you that we saw that he would all of a sudden become an M.V.P.-type candidate in 2018, I’d probably be lying to you that we knew that, specifically.
“But the athleticism, his work ethic, the way he was raised, and just kind of how he quietly he went about his business from the get-go, there was never any drama. He never allowed anything to interfere with his goals.”
Like Tulowitzki, Story looked up to Jeter — the clutch performances, the savvy leadership, the smooth public persona. When an injury to Tony Fernandez created a spot for Jeter in March 1996, Jeter impressed Manager Joe Torre with his reaction. Jeter called it an opportunity, not a given, which is just how Story saw the Tulowitzki deal.
“I knew there was an opportunity to win the job going into ’16,” Story said. “I just tried to make the best of it. Tulo was my guy and he was my mentor, and he helped me out a lot. It was sad to see him go, but it was kind of an opportunity, for sure.”
With Reyes suspended through the first two months of the season, Story claimed the job in the spring and held it with an extraordinary start: seven home runs in the first six games of the season, an unprecedented feat. He made more home run history last month with a blast at Coors Field that soared 505 feet, the longest measured in the four seasons of baseball’s Statcast system.
Story has shown better balance at the plate this season, which helps him recognize pitches a split-second earlier. His swing has a natural lift, he said, so long home runs are nothing new. But he never expected to hit a ball 505 feet, even in the thin air of Denver.
“When I hit it, it was one of those feelings like, ‘I really don’t think I can hit one any better than that,’” Story said. “With the angle it had on it too, I knew it was going to be a deep one. But, yeah, that’s the best feeling in this game. It’s a feeling that you fall in love with.”
Home runs do not come easily off Jon Lester, the Cubs’ starter Tuesday and a postseason stalwart. Kyle Freeland, the Rockies’ ace, will be starting on three days’ rest. The circumstances are hardly ideal for the Rockies, but they have changed the course of their franchise at Wrigley Field before.
Now, as their shortstop might say, they have another opportunity.