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Sun-Star Spotlight: Merced's Fuentes, Colorado just four wins shy of World Series

For a baseball player, it's the ultimate shower.

A tradition every athlete dreams about from the first time they put on their uniform. There's nothing quite like the champagne celebration in the locker room.

Just ask Colorado Rockies reliever Brian Fuentes.

"It's awesome," Fuentes said. "It's a chance to let your guard down and just have fun."

The former Merced High and Merced College pitcher popped the corks twice last week.

First, Colorado clinched a playoff spot after outlasting San Diego 9-8 in a 13-inning, one-game playoff.

The team room was again lined in plastic after the Rockies swept Philadelphia in the National League Divisional Series.

Fuentes pitched in all three games. The left-handed set-up man didn't give up a run in 2 1/3 innings. He struck out four and walked three.

Fuentes and the Rockies are now just four wins away from playing in the World Series for the first time in the franchise's history.

Colorado and Arizona will face off in the National League Championship Series Thursday in Phoenix.

Fuentes will have plenty of people rooting for him back in Merced.

"I think you're seeing more and more Rockies fans around here," said Merced College coach Chris Pedretti, who coached Fuentes.

"I know in my house that's who we're rooting for.

"I would hope people would feel a loyalty toward him. For us here in Merced, to watch him pitch in the World Series would be phenomenal."

The Rockies' journey to the NLCS is nothing short of amazing.

Colorado had to win 13 of its final 14 regular season games just to force the one-game playoff with the Padres.

Fuentes played a key role during the run compiling a 2-0 record with a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings pitched.

It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the seven-year veteran.

Fuentes struggled in the middle of the season. He saw his ERA skyrocket from 1.89 on June 21 to 4.17 on July 1.

After he blew four straight save opportunities in June, he lost this job as closer.

That same week he was named to the NL All-Star team for the third straight year.

He soon found himself on the disabled list with a mild back strain.

"It was a strange week," Fuentes said. "I was voted to the All-Star game by my peers. That was a very proud moment. That's the biggest compliment you can get.

"Sure the writers and the fans watch the game, but the players really know the game.

"Unfortunately, I had a terrible week right before the game."

Teammate Manny Corpas pitched well in Fuentes' absence. So well in fact, that when Fuentes came off the DL six weeks later, Corpus remained the team's closer.

"Obviously, I'd like to be the closer on this team," Fuentes said. "I had a rough week and I got hurt afterward.

"Manny Corpas has stepped up and pitched great.

"It's nothing I'm going to cry about. I've still got to do my job in the role I'm in and that's pitching in the seventh or eighth inning."

Fuentes has returned to form and finished the regular season with a 3-5 record to go along with 20 saves and a 3.08 ERA.

"(Fuentes) has to be a quality individual

to be a three-time All-Star closer and when they ask him to set up, he does it because it's what's best for the team," said teammate Matt Herges. "That might seem unheard of -- that this is a collection of guys that not only are real good ballplayers, but good human beings."

With the World Series in sight, Fuentes doesn't want to get ahead of himself.

"It's crossed my mind," Fuentes said. "I try not to think about it. I don't want to get caught up in that.

"Right now, we have to focus on the Diamondbacks."

The champagne will be waiting on ice.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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