PHOENIX - It's the NL Worst no more.
The National League teams out West, the subject of ridicule just two seasons ago, are young, talented, and they work cheap - at least relatively so in the world of major league baseball.
The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, who open their NL Championship Series tonight, are proof that success can be homegrown and that big money doesn't ensure a winner - but some shrewd draft picks and a few smart trades can.
"The American League East will always have a few more dollars to spend," Arizona manager Bob Melvin said, "but I think the youth and amount of prospects in this division are pretty phenomenal."
In one sweet season, some have gone from prospects to stars. That's part of the reason that for the first time, a pair of West teams will meet in the NLCS.
Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, who turned 23 yesterday, hit .291 with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs while leading major league shortstops in fielding percentage.
The Rockies, making their first NLCS appearance, also have two outstanding young pitchers in 23-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez and 21-year-old Franklin Morales. Closer Manny Corpas is just 24.
Rookie Jeff Baker's pinch single drove in the go-ahead run in a Rockies' 2-1 victory that completed a three-game sweep of Philadelphia in the Division Series. It was Colorado's 17th victory in 18 games.
"It's been amazing," Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins said. "Ubaldo Jimenez has been huge for us. There's no way we are where we are without him. Franklin Morales has done an unbelievable job, as well, getting us here. Obviously you can't speak enough about Tulo. He's been unbelievable on both sides of the ball."
The Diamondbacks, if anything, are younger. They start three rookies - center fielder Chris Young (24), third baseman Mark Reynolds (24), and right fielder Justin Upton (20).
Reynolds was called up from Double A when Chad Tracy was hurt. Upton, considered one of the game's top prospects, started the season at Single A Lancaster.
Micah Owings, the fourth pitcher in Arizona's rotation, is a rookie. Shortstop Stephen Drew and first baseman Conor Jackson are in their second seasons. It would appear to have the makings of a great Mountain vs. Desert rivalry. "It sure seems like a lot of people are talking about us developing one," Colorado manager Clint Hurdle said yesterday. "We'll see how it develops, but I think it's very encouraging the NL West had the success it had this year. It's good for baseball, and I think it earned us some respect around the league."
Despite the NL's worst batting average (.250), Arizona had the NL's best record (90-72). That's largely because of 32 one-run victories.
The Arizona kids were anything but in awe while polishing off the Chicago Cubs in a three-game sweep in the Division Series.
"I really don't know why," Young said. "You seriously treat it like another ballgame. Obviously it's a way bigger scale. These games mean a lot more. But when you're out there on the field, you're hyped up before. But after the first pitch it's like another ballgame."
Melvin believes the success may serve as a model for others. Colorado has a payroll of about $54 million, with nearly $17 million going to one player (Todd Helton). The Diamondbacks have a payroll of about $65 million, but the 25 who are on the playoff roster earn about $30 million.
The Diamondbacks will send Brandon Webb, the only pitcher to beat Colorado in the last 18 games, against Rockies ace Jeff Francis in Game 1.
Webb (18-10) was 0-3 with a 6.47 ERA in his five previous starts against the Rockies this season before he beat them, 4-2, clinching a playoff spot for Arizona and ending Colorado's 11-game winning streak.
"It was by far and away the nastiest stuff we'd seen from him in some time," Hurdle said. "He just got better as he went along."
Webb called it "one of the biggest games I've ever pitched."
"It gives me a little bit of confidence to know that it was me that beat them," he said, "but obviously I have to have my best stuff."
Francis, who won a franchise-record 17 games, is 7-2 lifetime against the Diamondbacks. He doesn't believe the four-day layoff will cool off his team. The rest, he said, is much needed.
"It's been a long year," he said. "It's probably the first time we've had four days off in about eight months."