Last night, the Rockies rode a six-run fourth inning to a 12-0 win over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Ballpark. The win launched them into a tie with the Phillies (and Dodgers) for second place in the NL wild-card standings, and coupled with the Padres‘ loss, left them 2 ½ games behind San Diego with 17 to play. At six back of the Diamondbacks, they’re unlikely to win the West, but you have to take them seriously given their schedule-10 straight games against the Padres and Dodgers beginning next Tuesday.

The Rockies have been flying well under the radar in the second half, because they’ve avoided the extended hot or cold streaks that have defined so many other contenders’ seasons. Their current 76-69 mark, seven games above .500, is their high-water mark of the season, and they haven’t been below .500 since sweeping the Mets at home just before the All-Star break. Their longest second-half winning streak is three, their longest losing streak, two. They did have an extended rough stretch in August, dropping six of eight, but they haven’t dropped three games in a row since an eight-game slide near the end of June. They’ve simply plodded along, winning a bit more than they’ve lost, and that makes you a threat in the National League, circa 2007.

Now, even a modest .524 winning percentage is well above where I (76-86) and PECOTA (79-83) had them coming into the season. Their record isn’t some Pythag-violating fluke, either: their +68 run differential is second in the NL to that of the Mets. If anything, they’ve underperformed their runs scored and allowed, especially relative to the Diamondbacks, who lead the division in spite of a -23 differential.

How has a team this good escaped notice? The lack of long winning or losing streaks has been a part of it, as the Rockies have never had the signature stretch that puts an action shot of Matt Holliday on the front page of your favorite Web site. They’ve never led the West or the wild-card race, and they’ve completely avoided any kind of headline-making non-baseball story. No one’s even talking about the humidor any longer; Coors Field’s one-year park factors for runs, homers, hits and doubles are all among the top six in the game. It’s a hitters’ park again, if not the extreme outlier it was prior to 2006.

For me, the Rockies’ story begins with defense and its effects on their run prevention. Ever since MLB put a major-league team in Denver in 1993, the Rockies have almost always been among the worst teams in baseball in Defensive Efficiency. The effects of the environment on balls in play, and the size of the outfields in Mile High and Coors Field, simply were too much for defenders to overcome. The Rockies didn’t exactly emphasize defense in the Blake Street Bombers era, but subsequent efforts to do so weren’t successful, mostly resulting in somewhat better defensive teams that were lousy offensively.

Here’s how the Rockies have ranked in the majors in DER since they came into existence. See if you can spot the outlier.

1993-94: 28
1995: 27
1996: 24
1997: 27
1998: 28
1999: 30
2000: 22
2001: 21
2002: 16
2003: 29
2004: 30
2005: 29
2006: 22
2007: 8

Not to oversimplify things, but this is what happens when you find guys who can play defense up the middle. The 2007 Rockies made two significant changes as compared to the 2006 team: they let Troy Tulowitzki win the shortstop job, and they traded for the best center fielder they’ve ever had in Willy Taveras. In 2006, Rockies’ shortstops were slightly below average, two runs below average per Clay Davenport‘s Rate statistic. In 2007, they-meaning Tulowitzki-are 15 runs above average. In center, they’ve gone from two runs below average to nine above, with Taveras 12 runs above when he’s been able to stay on the field. The Rockies allowed 1549 hits last year; they’ve allowed 1334 in 2007, on pace for 1490. They allowed 386 doubles and triples last year; 303 this year, on pace for 339. The dropoff in those numbers is largely due to the improved defense, especially in the outfield. Matt Holliday is having a Gold Glove-caliber season, making him a stealth MVP candidate not because of the Rockies’ record and his RBI count, but because his actual production warrants it.

Defense is critical to this Rockies’ team, which is last in the NL in both strikeouts and strikeout rate. The team that should suffer the most of any on balls in play-because of the thin air and large outfield-is winning while putting more balls in play than any other team. Some of that run prevention is the Rockies’ pitchers control-their 436 walks is the fourth-fewest allowed by any NL staff-but more of it, most of it, is the defense behind them.

The Rockies’ offense has been effective, posting a .351 OBP that’s second in the league and the team’s highest since 2001. Correct for the ballpark, as Equivalent Average does, and you find that it’s a league-average offense, eighth in the NL with a .260 EqA. They’ve scored a few more runs than you’d predict, something I think may be due to their having no terrible lineup holes. No regular has an OBP below .325, and while the second basemen who’ve covered for Kazuo Matsui have been lousy, Matsui has been a real asset when on the field, with a .262 EqA and excellent defense.

Average offense, average pitching and an excellent defense. That’s a recipe for finishing above .500, and if you can do that in the National League, you’re a contender

Tonight’s game means the world to this team. The Rockies won’t get another crack at the Phillies, so this is their last chance to leapfrog them without getting help. If they can do that, they’ll control their destiny against the Dodgers and Padres over the next two weeks. With Jeff Francis on the mound-if you have to face the Phillies in CBP, do it with a lefty-and their offense facing J.D. Durbin, the table is set for them to take three of four from the Phillies.

And then you’ll probably start seeing those Web site pictures of Holliday, Tulowitzki and the rest of the stealth contenders, no longer stealth.

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