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Finally the Rockies' turn? 

End Zone

For nearly two decades now — that's right, this will be the 19th season for Major League Baseball in Denver — the Colorado Rockies have provided their fans with successes and frustrations, amazing finishes and stunning nosedives, even that one National League pennant and an all-too-brief World Series memory in 2007.

Last year, more than a few expert observers thought the Rockies were in position for another special year. They were projecting Colorado to win that still-elusive NL West division title, and some predicted the Rockies to go all the way.

They looked capable of proving the pundits right up to the All-Star break, with a surge in early July that took them to 49-39. Star pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez was off to an incredible start, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez was emerging as a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate, and manager Jim Tracy was pushing all the right buttons as he had in 2009 when the Rockies earned another wild-card playoff spot.

Even after a rotten 13-21 slump in the month after the All-Star Game, they still recovered in time to reach an 82-66 mark as late as Sept. 17, keeping them in contention for the postseason. But instead of one last charge as in 2007 and '09, they shockingly collapsed, losing 13 of their last 14 to finish a disappointing 83-79. San Francisco, meanwhile, achieved everything Colorado was hoping for, from taking the division title all the way to winning the World Series.

So, were those experts just a year early? Possibly so.

This year's Rockies have enjoyed one of their best springs ever (20-11 as they left Arizona on Wednesday), and though it's foolhardy to put too much stock into exhibitions, Colorado has given every indication of being a more determined and confident team than before.

Granted, there have been early setbacks, in particular the injuries to starting pitcher Aaron Cook (finger) and third baseman Ian Stewart (knee). Cook remains an uncertainty, but Stewart has been playing through his recovery and looks ready to start the season in the lineup — though veteran Ty Wigginton might share time there early.

And of course, no assessment of the Rockies would be complete without including first baseman Todd Helton, who wants to prove he has another good year or two in him. Wigginton and Jason Giambi will be available if needed.

Last year the Giants went 92-70, and they're picked to repeat in the NL West, so Colorado might have to match that in order to challenge. To reach that number, though, five key factors have to turn from questions into strengths — not during the summer, but as soon as possible. Here they are, in no particular order:

• Who's the closer? Huston Street has to be solid, day after day, week after week, and he hasn't shown that kind of prowess yet in spring exhibitions. Colorado does have better insurance with Matt Lindstrom (23 saves for Houston last year), but this team can't afford a rash of blown saves as happened last year.

• Can Chris Iannetta finally emerge? This will be the catcher's last chance to turn potential into reality. He'll hit eighth in the lineup, but he has to provide some offense without a backup as good as Miguel Olivo was.

• Who's on second? Jonathan Herrera and Jose Lopez have battled through the spring, and Herrera won over many fans last year. If Lopez can hit like he did two years ago in Seattle, he'll be the guy.

• How deep, really, is that starting rotation? Colorado feels good about its top three of Jiménez, Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin. After that, Jason Hammel needs to prove he's good enough to hold down the No. 4 spot, and somebody (Esmil Rogers, John Maine or somebody else) has to emerge as the fifth guy.

• Can the Rockies win away from Coors Field? They were 52-29 at home, 31-50 on the road in 2010. They have to hit and pitch better at lower altitudes than they did a year ago, or the rest of these questions won't matter.

Bottom line, those issues make it harder to envision Colorado becoming the Giants of 2011. Instead, let's call it 88-74 with an outside chance at another wild card.

Then again, if the rest of the division struggles, who knows?

routon@csindy.com

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