Helton: Focused teams can overcome odds

Two Rockies teams have overcome early-season slumps to reach the playoffs during Todd Helton's tenure with the franchise.

There’s no denying that the odds are still stacked against the Toronto Blue Jays.

They’ve lost more games than they’ve won, and they’re last in the AL East. The oddsmakers who once favoured the Blue Jays to win the World Series now say the team is a 22-1 longshot.

Even so, the Blue Jays have made meaningful progress during the last ten days. Now riding an eight-game winning streak, they’re suddenly within one game of the .500 mark at 35-36.

“Playing baseball is much more fun when you’re winning, so we’re definitely enjoying this,” Jose Bautista said before the Blue Jays completed a sweep of the Colorado Rockies Wednesday night.

The Blue Jays did their share of losing early on, starting the season 10-21. Within weeks of their opening day loss to the Cleveland Indians, the Blue Jays faced the reality that few teams had rebounded from such poor starts to reach the postseason.

ROCKIES MAGIC: If any franchise has shown that such comebacks are possible it’s the Rockies. Their two most recent playoff appearances, in 2007 and 2009, came after abysmal starts to the season not unlike the one from which the Blue Jays are currently emerging.

Todd Helton says teams must maintain a narrow focus to reach the postseason after falling well below .500 early on.

“I think it’s trusting the process and not the result,” Helton said. “We went out and played hard for nine innings and even when we lost we showed up the next day and did it again.”

At age 39 and in his 17th MLB season, Helton is now the Rockies’ oldest and longest-tenured player. Yet he didn’t reach the playoffs until 2007, and when Colorado began that season 18-27, it didn’t seem likely that he would be appearing in the postseason any time soon.

Even as the ’07 Rockies scuffled, reliever LaTroy Hawkins delivered a message that resonated with Helton.

“He had been there,” Helton said of Hawkins, now a reliever with the New York Mets. “He had been to the playoffs a few times and he kept putting it in our head every day that we had enough talent to be a good team and personally I believed him and I think a lot of other people did too.”

Hawkins’ message — “keep going, we’re going to do this” — may sound a little cliche, but it worked. The Rockies won 72 of their final 118 games, including a memorable 163rd play-in game against the San Diego Padres, on their way to the first World Series appearance in franchise history.

Two seasons later, the Rockies did it again. They began the season 20-32 before winning 72 of their final 110 games and earning a Wild Card berth.

Mixed emotions can set in once teams do start winning. Helton says there are two ways for slow-starting teams to assess themselves once the wins start out-numbering the losses.

“One of them is ‘why didn’t we do this earlier,’” he said. “But when you’re winning it feels so easy and when you’re losing it’s like ‘we’re never going to win another game.’ It’s just that hopelessness. So that’s where that even keel comes in. Just trust the process and not worry about the results. I think that’s where that helps out a lot.”

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: As for the 2013 Blue Jays, Helton believes the team has lots of talent. With talent, however, come expectations.

“I think a lot of times that can be the doom of a team is the expectations,” Helton said. “A lot of times once you start off bad some of those expectations go away and it’s actually freeing in a sense that now you can just go out and play and not worry about winning.

“Just worry about going out and playing and playing the game that they’ve played their whole lives. I think in that sense they’re a way back and everybody counts them out now. That really will free them up and obviously they’ve got enough talent they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

For any kind of lasting parallel to exist between past Rockies teams and the 2013 Blue Jays, the Jays will need to do a lot more than reach the .500 mark. With five teams ahead of Toronto in the Wild Card chase, the chances of reaching the postseason are remote (Baseball Prospectus estimates that they have a 7.8 per cent chance of making the playoffs).

To borrow Helton’s words, the Blue Jays are not yet a force to be reckoned with. Not when they remain below .500 and their starting rotation includes this much uncertainty.

Yet the Blue Jays are playing their best baseball of the year, and shortstop Jose Reyes is on his way back to Toronto, so there’s renewed hope that the team can contend.

For the time being, Bautista has adopted the narrow focus that Helton advocates.

“We just have to concentrate and try to win each one and see where we end up at the end,” Bautista said.

The Blue Jays now have a chance of ending up where they want to, slim though it may be.

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