Monthly archives: August 2007
Rockies @ Diamondbacks
The Rockies have to sweep Arizona if they have any hope of passing the Diamondbacks (and the Phillies, and the Dodgers, and now the Braves too) for the National League wild card. It's a long shot, and even if everything went right for Colorado this weekend at Chase Field, they'd still have to play out of their minds the rest of the way to make it pay off. When we look back on the year this won't be the series that makes or breaks the season (I expect that will turn out being the series at home last week where the Rockies deep-snoozed their way through losing three of four to the Pirates), but it could have tremendous implications for 2008.
The goal this year, set by the organization itself, was to be playing meaningful games in September. Today is August 31st. If the Rockies win tonight, they will have accomplished their goal for the season, and when was the last time under O'Dowd that the franchise even met its own modest target for annual improvement? This will be a first, and it will set the Rockies on their way to winning the most games in franchise history, even though they'll probably miss the postseason. If the Rockies win tonight, I promise I will go into next spring training positive and upbeat. I'll buy and wear a Willy Taveras T-shirt, even.
However, the last few times the Rockies have faced an absolute, gotta-win, no-fooling around-this-time situation they have crumbled like stale toast. In the first game in San Francisco, the entire Colorado dugout was shown up in enthusiasm first by a hippie Giants fan who caught a homer and then by home plate umpire Greg Gibson, who was doing that obnoxious thing that umpires do sometimes where they randomly start calling balls five inches off the outside of the plate strikes and picking fights with any batter who dares to complain. If the Rockies have the lineup, the defense, and the beginnings of the rotation and bullpen needed to contend, they sorely lack the leadership. Whenever Todd Helton tries to call out his team, as he did a few weeks back, it has no effect because everybody in the clubhouse loves and respects Todd so much that they don't believe he's really mad at them. They just think he's doing what he thinks he needs to do as the leader of the team because that's the kind of guy he is.
Clint Hurdle, on the other hand, as we've discussed many times, simply has no authority at all. What has he won? When did he prove himself? The only thing Clint has shown persistence in is finding ways to guarantee his influence completes Rockies losses. When given the opportunity to run or bunt the team out of an inning, he can't wait to give the signal. Then there's the way that when the Rockies are safely 10 games out, he uses the bullpen like a guy with nothing to lose, breaking established roles and riding the hot hand. As soon as Colorado creeps up on the margins of the pennant race, he becomes Dusty Baker and starts leaning on guys like Jorge Julio and LaTroy Hawkins when it's late and close because they're Veteran Guys Who Have Proven Their Mettle.
I want Clint, and Todd, and Willy and Matt and Garrett and Tulo and Kaz to show me I'm wrong about them tonight. I have never asked the Rockies to win one game for me. I mostly assume they won't, then I complain about it, but there's never any real threat that I'm going to give up on them because, well, they're the only team in town. Tonight, I don't know. If they come out flat as they did in the Pittsburgh and San Francisco Game Ones, I might have to throw in the towel and start blogging Liverpool football.
No, not really. But it is past time for the Rockies to show us something. It's easy to play yourself back into the margins of the race when no one is paying any attention to you. It's much, much harder to stay in it and make it so no one overlooks you again. Will there be meaningful games in September? One result answers that question, and everyone involved with the Rockies franchise has to know that. It's been quite some time indeed since could have been said to be the case, so we'll learn a lot about a team that still has questions galore hanging over it tonight. I really, really want these lessons to be positive, joyful ones.
Ubaldo Jimenez is starting for the Rockies tonight, and I think that gives them an excellent chance. It's possible that Ubaldo's career would have been better off had he stayed in AAA all year for additional seasoning, learning to use the movement on his fastball to get guys to get themselves out the way Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook do. But against Arizona he's going to be facing an almost all-AAA lineup anyway, so it's not like the other team has a huge veteran advantage. They do have a huge veteran -- Livan Hernandez -- starting for them this evening, but the literal kind of huge, not huge in the clutch sense.
It's Wild, This Positivity Thing
It is not time yet to abandon all hope, Rockies fans. In three days, perhaps.
An 8-0 win to save face in a series in San Francisco that may (or may not) have exposed the Rockies as playoff pretenders keeps the team technically still with an outside shot, but Colorado can hardly afford to lose another series for the rest of 2007. In fact, they can barely allow for even a single loss more. Look at their schedule down the stretch, though, and you can't completely discount it.
We'll have a much better idea about the Rockies once this next series in Phoenix is completed. The Diamondbacks are terrible. They are. I'm sorry. The Cardinals last year were lucky; this team is in league with Satan. Their hitting is terrible. Their rotation is an unfunny joke after Brandon Webb. Even their bullpen doesn't have the peripherals to support its overwhelming performance. I have been intending for months now to write a column exposing them, but I hardly know where to begin. It's all right there in front of anyone who cares to look at the statistics. In a historically weak National League, this Arizona team is having a historically fluky season.
The trouble is, they will be genuinely better next year. Chris Young is going to bring his average up. Carlos Quentin is going to be a good 'un. The Rockies have the dominant offense in the NL West this season, but their strategy of outscoring their opponents hasn't been anywhere near as efficient as Arizona's strategy of... um... having a good defense and going on fluky winning streaks all the time. And the Rockies' defense is better than Arizona's.
So I don't know what the deal is, but there is certainly no reason for anyone on the Rockies to be terrified of the first-place team in their division going into a critical stretch-run road series. The first two games against the Giants were brutal, but for those still looking for a reason to believe, Barry Zito and Matt Cain really beat Colorado on Monday and Tuesday with excellent starting performances. The first two games in this series against the D-Backs, Colorado draws Yusmeiro Petit and Livan Hernandez. That's manageable. Then the rubber game is Josh Fogg against Brandon Webb.
Why didn't Clint Hurdle shuffle the rotation so Jeff Francis would face Webb? I don't know if it would have been possible with the limited off-days available at this point in the season. Still, Francis seemed "wasted" yesterday when the Rockies won eight-zip. I don't feel too bad about Ubaldo Jimenez and Elmer Dessens pitching in the first two games against Arizona. The Rockies' offense is so much better than Arizona's that I think if they can just get on the board first each night, they ought to win those two games.
Arizona looked a little shaky in their showdown series against San Diego, now tied with the Snakes for first place in the West. Could this be the continuation of a correction statheads have been awaiting since early in the first half? The odds are in Arizona's favor to hang on and make the postseason, but they still have to play the games. As long as this many games remain on the Rockies' schedule, you can't write them off entirely. And that was the goal this year, right? To play games like that in September?
A day off today helps a ton. If Colorado wins the game Friday night, they will take the field on Saturday, September 1st with the Rockies ticket office still in danger of processing my payment for postseason tickets, which I sent in despite not actually having money figuring that with my luck the Rockies would make the playoffs, my rent checks would bounce, and I'd move into a tent in the Coors Field remote parking lot until the division series began.
Giants 4, Rockies 1
Once again, I was a fool to believe. Clint Hurdle made a series of head-scratching decisions in the eighth inning of a tie game, not setting up either of his best left-handers to face Barry Bonds and twiddling his thumbs absently as Jorge Julio made things worse and worse for himself. By bringing in Jeremy Affeldt to face Bonds (or, even more imaginatively, leaving in Brian Fuentes, who had pitched a bolsteringly effective seventh), Hurdle could have given the Rockies' offense more chances to break through. Barry Zito though hardly dominant held down a mostly righthanded Colorado lineup (Brad Hawpe hit only his third homer of the season off of a lefty in the fifth) and Josh Fogg gave another one of his trademark over-his-head road performances only to be hung out to dry by Hurdle and the offense.
I don't know how many times I can write the same thing. I feel like it's my role to keep Rockies fans realistic, but I want to feel genuine hope as much as anybody. As I wrote yesterday, it's all in front of them. They "control their own destiny," to borrow a term from another, lesser sport. If Colorado can just keep winning series, there's little chance one of the teams ahead of them in the wild card race is capable of playing that much better. But why should anybody be fooled? This team has never played like a contender on the road in the second half of a season. Ever. In 1995, as some of the real diehards may remember, the Rockies got off to a big lead in the division that dwindled and disappeared with a ballistic path in the late summer. Only the fact that it was a strike-shortened season meant that the season ran out of games before the Rockies finished choking, and they got the wild card.
This is going out to Clint Hurdle: Wake up. Your job is not safe. If it is, it shouldn't be. It's time to start managing like the team is down 0-3 in a seven-game series. Multiple-inning appearances from your closer, bullpen appearances from your best starters (not that Clint has many of them left), nothing should be held back in reserve. Also, you shouldn't have anybody but pitchers bunt. If the Rockies are going to make a miracle run, it's going to be by clubbing people into submission. I have long argued that the franchise will never win consistently until it has the pitching and offensive execution to win close games, but this isn't about winning consistently, it's about winning now, and what the Rockies have is a flawed team in a bad league that by chance has a way better offense than any other team in its division. They need Brad Hawpe hitting homers, not moving guys over. If Clint doesn't know this, I bet first-base coach Glenallen Hill does. Interim manager!
You Trade Willy Taveras at Your Peril
The Houston Astros fired manager Phil Garner and GM Tim Purpura this afternoon. This is what happens when you trade a budding superstar like Willy T, I guess. Purpura also bears the responsibility for last year's stupid Preston Wilson signing and this year's stupid Carlos Lee signing, allowing Roger Clemens to hold the entire organization hostage three seasons in a row, letting Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell dessicate while providing no new offensive support around them, and supervising the failures of a string of promising minor league pitchers from Tim Redding to Taylor Buchholz. As it so happens the research department and I were at an Astros convention at Minute Maid park in March of 2005, shortly after Purpura had taken the job. We asked him some questions and we were not impressed. I remember predicting that both would be fired within two years. I was off by one.
Cecil Cooper is the new 'Stros skipper; grand old man Tal Smith will serve as interim GM.
Rockies Sweep Nationals
First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who has written in and asked me to keep writing the Rockies off in the false assumption that every time I rake the team over the coals they start winning like crazy. If Colorado went on a hot streak every time I said something disparaging about them, they'd be like 452-2 over the last three seasons.
My first reaction to the Rockies' very solid series at Coors against the rather dimly starred Washington club was that while a sweep was very nice indeed, it only put the Rockies right back where they were a week ago before they lost 3 of 4 to the Pirates, with a road trip in the division looming. Road trips in the NL West are the Rockies' kryptonite. But then I actually looked at the standings and saw that in the wild card Colorado is now ahead of Atlanta and Milwaukee, tied with the Dodgers, and trailing just Philadelphia (whose pitching makes the Rockies' look sterling) and San Diego (whose hitting makes the Rockies' look like the '27 Yanks). At this point in the season, as I have been telling people for days as an argument against the Rockies chances of making the playoffs this year, the number of games back is less important than how many teams are between you and your goal. It's entirely possible for one team with a big lead to go cold and the one team behind it to capitalize; it happened with the Twins and Tigers last season. But when there's five teams ahead of you, as was the case for the Rockies a couple of days ago? Not so much.
I still don't think the Rockies are a playoff team, but here is what I've come around to realizing. The National League isn't a playoff league. Seriously, they should call the season now and have an eight-team tournament with the Tigers, Indians, Angels, Mariners, Red Sox, Yankees, Twins, and Mets. That would be much more exciting than the playoffs we're going to end up getting, with an NL Central winner who could be under .500, a Diamondbacks team with the worst run differential in their division (by a wide, wide margin), and a wild card that will probably be the favorite to advance given the lack of pressure the Mets have faced for the whole second half.
Now here's the real kicker. The Rockies play San Diego six times down the stretch and the Phillies four times. It's all there in front of them, if they want it. They still haven't had a dominant road trip this year, although the way the league is falling apart around them that 3-3 swing through Florida and Atlanta is looking more and more impressive. If Colorado can crank the Giants and expose Arizona on its upcoming six-game trip, sixteen of their final twenty-six games are at home. Hey, they might just not win the wild card, they could win the division! The Diamondbacks are six weeks overdue for a massive reality correction. The Dodgers are choking on fumes. The Padres fear coming to Coors way more than the Rockies are bothered by PetCo Park. It's all there.
Aren't you glad I didn't write anything immediately in response to the Rockies' five-run ninth-inning comeback on Friday night? That pretty much would have guaranteed that they lost the next two games to the Nationals, the way my picks are going lately. Listen, I still have some issues with the organization. If Colorado had begun the year with a better rotation they would have been able to put away some more games in April and May and they wouldn't have had that 1-9 road trip at the end of June. But you think any Cardinals fans care that management didn't bolster the team more at the trade deadline last year? Sure, St. Louis went in freefall down the stretch, but they backed into the playoffs and... won the World Series, which is something that any team in the postseason has a legitimate shot of doing, even if they came from a eyesore circuit that makes us long for the days of the Federal League.
I have been operating under the assumption that the Brewers' Ryan Braun sewed up the NL Rookie of the Year award some time ago, but if Milwaukee continues fading and the Rockies pull off a miracle, consider Troy Tulowitzki. As SI.com's Gennaro Filice writes, Tulo is the most complete rookie in the league this year. He has been the starter at shortstop for Colorado since Opening Day, he leads the league in putouts and assists from his position, and he's hitting .296/.366/.468, nothing to sneeze at for any NL shortstop let alone a rookie. Troy only has eighteen homers to Braun's 25 in two months' less worth of games, and the difference in OPS (1.026 to .835) is hugely in Braun's favor. But then again, Braun is a butcher at third base. Fielding percentage is a flawed stat, but I think that we can be certain than anything under .900 is pretty bad. Braun boots more than 1 in 10 of the balls hit to his position, whereas Tulowitzki as a shortstop is at .984. It won't make much of a difference since nobody watches Rockies games, but Troy has also been driving in ridiculously clutch runs seemingly three or four times a week and he may be extending Todd Helton's effective years with the way he puts every single freaking throw to first right on the "17." During the Clint Barmes era Todd's knees took a beating every inning with the way he had to scamper, dive, and leap to keep throws flying past him into the dugout. With Tulowitzki he barely ever even has to move his glove. By custom the best fielders in each league are barred from winning Gold Gloves, but look at Troy's big advantage in range factor over his closest challenger, the Giants' Omar Vizquel. Omar pips Troy in fielding percentage .987 to .984, but at 5.50 Tulo's range is three-quarters of a point higher and Tulowitzki has helped his team with the bat, unlike the veteran Vizquel (.249/.308/.309). Rookies never win Gold Gloves, but Wes Parker made the all-time GG team earlier this season so I suppose anything is possible. Certainly if you'd watched him all season as I have you'd have little to no evidence of any better defensive shortstop in the National League than Troy Tulowitzki.
The 2007 Rockies: An Uncharacteristic Exercise in Brevity
Thanks for coming, everybody. If the last person out could turn the lights off, that'd be great.
Life Support and Such
I almost skipped out on the Rockies game last night. I had a ticket, but when game time rolled around I was a couple of hours into that new game all the kids are talking about and I wasn't so sure that Elmer Dessens and Tony Armas were going to be any more exciting. But I felt bad about eating another ticket last weekend when the Cubs were in town (better reason then, though, my rock group's CD release) and I had slightly more gas left in the tank than I remembered having, so I went.
For the first few innings I felt like yelling down to Brad Hawpe, who generally stands directly in front of my right field box seat when a right-handed hitter is at the plate for the opposition, and asking if anyone on the Rockies was at all interested in the pennant race in which their team was still at least nominally participating. Colorado initially looked as sluggish against Armas as they were against Matt Morris in the disheartening loss in the homestand's first game. But then Ian Stewart came up with the bases juiced in the third. It first occurred to me that it was an excellent opportunity for Stewart to hit his first major league homer. It then occurred to me that with Coors Field near-empty and my seat right in the right-field power alley, such a homer might have a very good chance of ending up in my hands. Stewart swings lefty, and I've been known to catch home runs at Coors from time to time. Indeed Ian did hit his show debut four-run homer, but only a couple of feet from the left-field foul pole. Power to all fields!
That was all it would have taken, as Dessens did his thing for four-plus and then Taylor Buchholz pitched all the way through the eighth, looking about as good as he ever has in a Rockies uniform. Funny thing for Buchholz, but sometimes title dictates behavior. When he was a "possible starter," he pitched like it, but now that Clint Hurdle, you, me, and Buchholz know he's the long relief guy, he seems to have settled in and is throwing worthy of the role, if not better. I don't think that in this instance it's entirely an issue of semantic confidence. When he was a starting prospect in the Houston organization Buchholz's bread and butter was a big-breaking overhand curve. Now that he's Colorado's long guy, he seems to have adjusted to using the curve mostly as a show-me pitch and getting his heavy lifting done the same way as all persistently successful Rockies pitchers do, especially those who are expected to pitch more than one inning per appearance. Fastballs away. It's not complicated but it gets the job done. Without his hook Buchholz is no great shakes as a strikeout pitcher, but the Rockies have a whole lull-them-into-complacency thing going on with the fashion in which their rotation and bullpen are presently constructed. It's all pitching to contact in the early innings, and then the guys who throw smoke come on late. Could be something to it, but pitchers who prove effective over the long haul throwing a ton of innings and striking out very few are super rare. I would feel better if Aaron Cook were healthy still. And Jason Jennings, too. And also that he was still on the Rockies.
Kaz Matsui took the day off, so I didn't get the full effect with Jamey Carroll doing his best to capture that old '06 magic in the eight spot, but I couldn't help but reflect while filling in my lineup card. With Willy Taveras out of the leadoff slot, the Rockies' offense takes on a whole different character. Rather than looking up and down and trying to find specific functions for batters, it just looks... good. Spilborghs, Holliday, Hawpe in the outfield, those guys can all hit. Tulowitzki, Matsui, Helton, good hitting guys. Take your pick at third, Atkins or Stewart (or hell, Jeff Baker) -- those guys are hitters. Good hitters. Yorvit Torrealba is pretty much the only guy to whom you'd have to give the benefit of the doubt. I don't know what your OPS has to be to make you a plus catcher these days, but Torrealba's probably a little below the line. You have to watch him every day to really appreciate him as a hitter, though. I'm an averred agnostic when it comes to the whole old-school scout/new-school stat geek debate as to the existence of "clutch" performance. The mostly unmentioned implication that major league hitters don't try as hard as they can all the time seems weird to me. Why wouldn't they, other than established boo-hiss goldbricker types like J.D. Drew and Adrian Beltre? No way Yorvit Torrealba normally goes to the plate with a big wad of gum in his mouth and a Kelly Clarkson song in his head and then if and only if it's the late innings and the Rockies are behind does he spit out the gum and start forcing his brain to play "Enter Sandman." So, no, Yorvit's not clutch. He does however possess spectacular timing, which I assure you is different.
And now a random humidor thought. Or possibly not so random, given all the homers I saw the Rockies send to every imaginable corner of Coors last night. One of the many theories we used to hear as to why the Rockies couldn't win on the road was that the Arcade Mode conditions of games at Coors encouraged Colorado hitters to become ruinously pull-happy. Now the Rockies field a lineup full of all-field guys, notably Matt Holliday and Todd Helton, but with many of the younger pros obviously trying to go the other way in their image. And the home-road splits are a little less daunting than they used to be. Of course, I have another theory that it's not so much that Coors is coming back to the pack, it's just that most of the other ballparks are doing anything they can to increase offense. It always comes back around to the same familiar theme: No matter what the deal with the park is, the Rockies won't win big until they get some better pitchers.
That said, let's all cheer on Josh Fogg tonight!
It IS the West Coast Road Trip of Death
I suspected as much.
The Rockies will not pursue David Wells or any other last-ditch rotation filler. That means the starters remain Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Fogg, Franklin Morales, and Elmer Dessens. Two pink-cheeked rookies and two veterans whom were they playing for any other team we'd totally ridicule. And then there's Francis, who looked utterly fundamentally broken in his last start. He needs to get another winning streak going, or staying in contention for the NL Wild Card will be the least of Colorado's problems.
Franklin Morales (major league debut alert) and Chad Billingsley late tonight. Is it just me, or are these west coast night games getting started later and later every year? I couldn't keep awake through the middle innings of the game last night, but that could have been the paralytic effect of watching the Rockies choking.
I wanted to point out before I forgot about it this rather strange article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is all about how the Padres envy the Rockies and their strong farm system and mostly-homegrown big league lineup. That's as may be but from the tone of this piece you would think that it was Colorado and not San Diego that had spent the last several seasons contending for and winning division titles. Having a good farm system is desirable. Unquestionably it's this strength that has kept the Rockies relevant far deeper into the year than is the norm this season. But I would totally trade all the organizational depth in the world for a history like the Padres' full of... World Series appearances!
Win and Get Worse
The good news: Ubaldo Jimenez, who was theoretically pitching to keep his spot in the rotation (though given the Rockies' current plague of injuries, I can't imagine who would have taken his place had he thrown badly), struck out nine in six innings and Ian Stewart had the big hit as the Rockies responded to a Padres shutout with a shutout of their own, 3-0.
The bad news: Out of nowhere, Aaron Cook is going on the disabled list, and now the Rockies have a rotation that features Josh Fogg, Elmer Dessens, and Franklin Morales. Ramon Ortiz, acquired yesterday for superfluous minor league infielder Matt Macri, will pitch at least initially in relief. Jimenez went in the course of one start from being a game away getting sent back to the minors to becoming the Rockies' second-best starter. That's good for Ubaldo but very, very bad for Colorado.
Will the Rockies' offense be enough, especially given the paucity of the lineups of their competition in the NL West, to overcome a pitching staff that's mostly baling wire and hobby glue at this point? Having Ryan Spilborghs as the everyday centerfielder will help, as will having Stewart on the bench. After giving Jamey Carroll way more than his fair share of chances to be the principal infield sub Clint Barmes has been recalled to try and add a little more pop to the bench and let's hope he plays soon, if only to spare us from his banal Fox Sports Rocky Mountain "Miked Up" segments.
Rad catch against the fence by Spilborghs in the early innings in center last night. Sometimes when you actually run in the right direction after the ball is hit it doesn't matter if you don't have ludicrous speed. Uh... Willy Taveras missed a cut-off man in his last game, too.
Wow, I hadn't thought of that -- with Taveras on the disabled list, whom will I relentlessly scapegoat for the next few weeks? I guess Clint Hurdle.
Please, Please Let This Not Be the Annual West Coast Road Trip of Death
Boy, that loss last night burned. You'd think with Jeff Francis on the mound the Rockies would at the very least be able to stay in a close one until the very late innings with Greg Maddux and the Padres, but the Channel's reception was as lousy as I've ever seen it yesterday. Dude couldn't throw a strike. I was surprised that Clint Hurdle didn't pull the plug on Jeff right after he walked in the first run in the second -- it was clear to me, if not the skipper, that Francis simply had no command whatsoever and the only way he could throw a strike was by a grooving a BP offspeed pitch right down Main Street. Had Taylor Buchholz come in down three instead of seven, things might have gone differently. And Hurdle made another questionable decision last night. He started Willy Taveras even though Willy obviously was still in pain and couldn't run more than 60% of his normal pace. (This still allowed Willy to outrun a Baltimore chop in the top of the third, which should give you an idea of what T's normal pace is like.) After Matt Holliday's double (which should have been a triple) the score could have been 3-1 San Diego, but instead it was 7-0.
This is a better team than the one that showed up last night. Sort of. The Rockies are never good on the road, particularly in the second half, particularly particularly in the division, but even so, that was pathetic. Now Taveras is going on the disabled list, which means it's put up or shut up time for Ryan Spilborghs, and Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki move up in the lineup. Any idea who our next new starting pitcher is? I sure don't have one. Byung-Hyun Kim was released by the Diamondbacks, though. Wouldn't that be delicious ironing indeed if BK came back to pitch the Rockies into the playoffs? That'll be the day.
I'm really, really worried. Can you tell? The loss last night was one of those that registered far more than a single game in the standings. Here the Rockies are, their biggest road game of the second half so far, with their ace on the mound, and the game was a complete non-issue after three innings. Can I blame management for that? Only in the sense that it is by their mercy that Clint Hurdle continues to steer the ship in the indifferent manner befitting a career second-division manager. Maybe it's Bob Apodaca's fault that Francis is broken all of a sudden (the television guys felt that the Channel was overstriding, which seems fairly easy to correct -- just tie his legs together with a clothesline or something while he practices) but Hurdle should have been more on top of Taveras's injury and far, far quicker with the hook when Francis walked five guys in the second inning.
What to Make of Things
You know what I have been doing lately? I have been watching even more baseball than I usually do, but I have taken a lot of the analytical aspect out of the way I normally watch games. I've just been letting the pure satisfaction of there being four or five games a night with playoff implications for both teams wash over me. I also find myself surprisingly pleased that the team I usually root for in the AL after the Rockies have rendered themselves irrelevant (Oakland) is further out of the money right now than the Rockies are. That hasn't happened since I graduated from college and left the Bay Area behind me.
Of course, even when I am making a conscious effort to just enjoy how great this time of year is and stay away from all of the tangly, synthesist sports journalist stuff, ideas start emerging. Was Boston's shutout win over Tampa Bay enough to restore their confidence? Will the Dodgers ever score a run again? What is the freaking deal with the Diamondbacks? Is Seattle ever going to lose even one close game all season? After spending all year half-suspecting that the Indians would backslide and the Yankees would steal the wild card, is it too much to dream that it will be Detroit's playoff spot that New York pips instead? How on earth did I get to the point where I actually hate the Tigers more than the Yankees?
Here is an unfortunate one. Milwaukee and the Cubs will only play each other once more this season, and not at all in September. How did that happen, you ask, when the Rockies seemingly spend the last month of the season playing no one but NL West teams year after year? Well, there are six teams in the NL Central, for starters. I also imagine that Milwaukee ownership agitates every year to get as many home Chicago series as it can in the early part of the schedule. That's when it still tends to be miserably cold in the region and when at least a few Cubs fans I know would just as soon not go to a game at Wrigley in their long underwear -- but certainly wouldn't mind driving a half an hour north to watch the Cubs play indoors. I have been mumbling about schedule reform for a few years now, but realistically there is no solution to this problem that MLB will consider until the league again expands to 32 teams. Bud Selig and a quorum of the owners feel that interleague play needs to remain segregated on the schedule as is presently the case. I don't really see their argument.
The Rockies are in roster disarray, again, but they're certainly not playing like it. You know about the injuries to Rodrigo Lopez and Jason Hirsh. Where is the team finding starters? Pretty far afield. Tim Harikkala started Sunday for his first major league appearance in two seasons and was immediately sent down to AAA afterwards. With Todd Helton ailing (back spasms) and Jeff Baker recovering from a Jason Marquis fastball to the noggin, Ian Stewart finally made his first appearance with the parent club. Willy Taveras has a strained quadriceps, which has led to increased playing time for Bad Altitude fave Ryan Spilborghs in the past week. Jamey Carroll has also been contributing more than he has any time since last season with the Rockies attempting to keep the invaluable Kaz Matsui functional. Also, don't forget about the sudden rapid shuffle of backup catchers. Chris Iannetta was returned to the minors in favor of Edwin Bellorin, who immediately was injured; initially Alvin Colina stepped in but now Geronimo Gil is with the big club serving as Yorvit Torrealba's sub. You got all that?
So we still don't know who will take the last regular slot in the rotation. In fact, two slots could be up for change, as Ubaldo Jimenez has looked adrift and unaware of organized baseball's strike zone conventions in his last few starts. Franklin Morales, Rockies pitching prospect #1-B after Jimenez, was ineffective in his first start in Colorado Springs.
You know what, I am doing this backwards. Do you want to know how bad it really is for Rockies starting pitching right now? All you need to read is this one line from the Post's article this morning about the rotation's present chaotic state: "The Rockies remain interested in Baltimore's Steve Trachsel."
So, seriously, what are our real options? Jimenez will certainly be given a few more chances to make the impressive movement on his fastball work for him rather than against him. As things stand right now I suspect that the Rockies will send Harikkala to replace Morales in AAA, give Franklin one shot with the big club, then switch them right back around if the rookie proves unready for prime time. As far as the starting rotation seems to be concerned, Taylor Buchholz is a forgotten man. Is there anyone out of the organization for whom Colorado could make a move? At this point it appears unlikely, as Thomas Harding writes in an MLB.com mailbag that also implies that Brian Fuentes will not receive the full-time closer's job back when he returns to the Rockies for this current road trip through San Diego and Los Angeles. Manny Corpas has been too good. Says here that if it's a save situation and there are more righties than lefties ahead in the opposition lineup, Corpas will get the call. I've often said that as effective a closer he has been, Fuentes would put up simply unspeakable numbers if his manager was able to maximize his exposure to left-handed hitting. I always assumed that this would happen in a pennant race for a club other than Colorado. Perhaps now Brian will lefty-specialize the Rockies' way to the postseason. Doing so would make him the third raddest left-handed person in the state after Jeff Francis and yours truly.
So it's another road trip in the division, to the mysterious and exotic part of the NL where they (oddly) try and win games with no offenses. Three games with the Padres, three games with the Dodgers. L.A. is on the brink of falling out of the discussion in the NL West all together, while Padres fans have even more reason than Rockies fans to look up at the frontrunning Arizona Diamondbacks and say "Seriously, what the hell is going on there?" An update, if you haven't been looking at this stat every morning first thing the way I have: Arizona is now fifteen games over .500 despite having been outscored on the season by more than twenty runs. That's freakier than David Bowie's erect radio signal-transmitting nipples.
Jeff Francis faces Greg Maddux tonight, which is awesome. I've always felt that despite the opposite orientations Francis's approach to hitters is like that of a developing young Maddux. They both work by exercising supernatural control of fastballs that that are harder on batters than they are on radar guns. The Channel, by the way, is on pace to establish a new franchise record for wins for a starting pitcher on a season. No word yet on whether Kevin Ritz, Pedro Astacio, and the commissioner will be attending all of his starts for the rest of the year. Wednesday we'll see U-Ball and Chris Young; Thursday Aaron Cook and Wilfredo Ledezma. Hmm, it's kind of too bad the Rockies can't use Tim Harikkala in that one, "Harikkala versus Ledezma" is tremendous fun to say out loud. (Try it.)
I hate to say it, but one cannot scrupulously report on any athletics in the state of Colorado without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Broncos fever has arrived with a vengeance. As I'm writing this some local radio host is predicting 14-2 and I believe wins in five of the next six Super Bowls. It is imperative that the Rockies not go 1-5 on this road trip, because even the same people who have been boosting average weekday Coors attendance to the heady territory of 20K a game have already been conditioned to completely switch off the baseball enthusiast parts of their brain come the third week of the NFL preseason. The Broncos annoyingly seem uninterested in becoming competitively irrelevant in the AFC West so the Rockies are going to have to do their part to remain in the conversation in the NL West else they fall off of the local sports awareness map entirely.
Hey, and having the star-studded distraction of the MLS All-Star Game right there in Commerce City didn't help any either.
Multiple Levels of Ridiculous
On Tuesday night, after some internal debate, I decided to attend the Rockies-Brewers game in person. I'm glad that I did, especially after the late-game announcement that Barry Bonds had hit his homer. If we end up long remembering Bonds' accomplishment (which seems unlikely given Alex Rodriguez's pace), I'll at least be able to say that on one particular night I was out at a game I cared much more about, watching my team stay in contention for at least one more day against another pretty good rising young club.
I have complained about the poor quality of the new Rockies' PA announcer before, but last night was really over-the-top bad. I didn't realize that rookie catcher Edwin Bellorin had left the game with an injury until the next time the catcher's spot came up and Yorvit Torrealba batted instead of Bellorin. And I'm just now finding out that Jason Hirsh pitched his last five innings with a broken leg. Come on!
So Hirsh and Rodrigo Lopez are probably out for the season. On the other hand, the Rockies creamed the Brewers 19-4 today to complete a sweep the Milwaukee team won't soon forget. Boy, the saggy back end of the Brewers' bullpen could be a fatal weakness. The Rockies' lineup could barely touch Chris Capuano in the game I attended and then scored eleven runs in three innings as soon as Ned Yost had to go to his relievers. Meanwhile, Jeremy Affeldt, Jorge Julio, and even Ryan Speier of all people pitched very effectively from Clint Hurdle's bullpen. With Brian Fuentes rehabbing and Garrett Atkins and Todd Helton starting to hit reliably (though Helton left today's game early with back spasms), who's to say the Rockies can't weather the loss of two of their first-choice starters? Ubaldo Jimenez is already better than Hirsh and maybe Franklin Morales will replicate Lopez's surprising early-season performance.
Edwin Bellorin, poor soul, pulled a hamstring in his first major league at-bat. He was here to give Chris Iannetta the opportunity to play every day in the minor leagues, a decision that should have taken place some time ago. The same thing happened in the recent past with J.D. Closser, who lost his starting job to Danny Ardoin and languished on the bench for parts of two seasons. If you're not going to start a big-time hitting prospect catcher, he should be in the minors, or traded, as the Braves did in a timely manner with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. I would complain about this a lot more right now, but I'm distracted by the whole Jason Hirsh thing. Five innings on a broken leg! And Jason Hirsh is a large fellow. Maybe I was wrong about him. At the very least I can no longer say he's not tough.
Update: Wait a second, is this right? "Colorado had its biggest day at the plate since a 20-1 victory over San Diego on Sept. 20, 2005, when the Rockies also had 19 runs and 23 hits." Seems like... if they won... twenty to one, they would have had... twenty runs.
Braves 6, Rockies 4
Is there such a thing as a heartening loss? The Rockies could have gotten blown out in this one, with Ubaldo Jimenez walking five and hitting two, the backbreaker coming on a 2-RBI single to Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. But Taylor Buchholz threw two shutout innings out of the bullpen and Garrett Atkins hit a four-run homer off of Octavio Dotel, in a mess entirely of Dotel's own devising. As encouraged Braves fans should be by the early play of Mark Teixeira, it's not so good that Atlanta's other major deadline acquisition is turning seven innings of shutout ball by Hudson into a save situation with one scant third of an inning.
Last year I made a habit of looking at the Rockies' and their opponents' walk and strikeout totals after every game; with their contact pitching staff and offense of young, fastball-hitting players Colorado was very seldom on the plus side in both categories and more often than not got beaten twice. This year, they're still free-swinging but their pitching staff has enough heat to make the strikeout category a contest: Jimenez struck out seven and Buchholz added a pair in two innings. This ranks as a positive development.
Seeing how well Atlanta is playing and how energized they seem by their big-ticket new teammate (which by the way meant so long for now for Julio Franco, but he appears amenable to going to the minors and, hey, he's only 49, his best years are ahead of him), I'm not going to complain if the Rockies lose this series and come home with a 3-3 trip. If they keep cleaning up at Coors, .500 on the road is perfectly acceptable.
A couple of thoughts while waiting for a game that I have already decided to treat as important wildly out of the proper 1/162 proportion:
We've discussed how the Mariners are doing it with smoke and mirrors before, but what about the Diamondbacks? After losing to the Padres 11-0 today, Arizona is ten games over .500 despite being outscored by 34 runs. If ever there were an appropriate situation for the descriptor "whopping," this is it. The Rockies by comparison have outscored the opposition by 11 runs and yet are four games behind the D-Backs in the standings. Arizona's offense hasn't impressed, as you would expect from a team whose chief weapon is presently Eric Byrnes, but even with Randy Johnson out their starting pitching has been mighty. When Brandon Webb arrived on the scene, Arizona sort of lucked into a team-building approach that the Rockies still have trouble comprehending (hellooo, Jason Hirsh): If you play in a ballpark where fly balls go a long way, get a lot of pitchers who induce ground balls and put world-class infielders behind them. Can defense and sinkers alone account for such a huge discrepancy between RS/RA and record? Not for a full season, says I.
It's time for me to admit I was totally wrong about the Cubs. They're good. It pains me to say it (we don't here have time or space to go into my painful estrangement from Chicago N.L., but take my word for it, it's big-time pain), but this roster might be the best argument for the "just sign a whole bunch of free agents and see what happens" approach since the '97 Marlins. Practically everybody the Cubs signed last offseason has been way better than I thought they had any right to be: Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Mark DeRosa, even Daryle Ward and Cliff Floyd have been somewhat useful. The only guy you could sort of categorize as a bust is Alfonso Soriano, who has been good but not eight-figure good, and his .250/.287/.401 line at Wrigley Field is very troubling. Soriano is one of those players who seems to have been invented simply to give the stat-aware migraines. He goes to a barn in metro D.C. and simply kills the ball, and then he goes to cozy little Wrigley and has only five homers in more than 200 at-bats. Go figure.
It's past time to call the season for the A's. Really, the only reason I've held off this long is out of respect for their recent accomplishments. Seattle seems to have righted the ship after a predictable post-break slump, but I still don't think they have even as good a team as Oakland's. They're +2 in RS/RA and 12 games over .500, which is pretty goofy. The A's, going by that metric, ought to have the better record, but they don't, so there you have it. The ever-indispensible BP Playoff Odds Report is fun to monitor on a day-to-day basis to see how the balance between its two major inputs changes. The closer we get to the end of the season, the less it matters what the "real" quality of your club is and the more it matters how many wins you have in the bank. In this spirit, the Rockies should now go win some games, starting tonight in Florida. C'mon, guys, the schedule couldn't have set up better: Desperately needing a road series win, the Rockies face the worst home team in the whole of the majors. Jason Hirsh gets the ball, his first start since a DL and rehab stint. He'll face (not making this up) a person called Rick VandenHurk. The Rockies have a somewhat shaky track record when it comes to facing pitchers you've never heard of, so watch out.
Rodrigo No More
Colorado looked unusually lean and purposeful last night while dismissing the Marlins, 6-3. I suppose if I were the sort of person who wanted to look on the downside of things I could mention that immense terror of empty orange seats has made Florida one of the worst home teams (23-30) in the majors, but... well, I guess I am that sort of person. And I guess I just did. But in any case I can't keep redefining my terms just to make my predictions look better. I want the Rockies to win more games on the road, and they just won one, so good for them.
Rodrigo Lopez has a torn labrum and is out for the season. It seems to me as if Dan O'Dowd probably had some idea that this was going to be Lopez's fate before the trade deadline came and went, but the Rockies still elected to stand pat. None of the other teams in the NL West made significant additions, but the Braves may have sewn up the wild card with their deal for Mark Teixeira. Does O'Dowd deserve an earful for not pulling off any last-day deals? Woody Paige thinks so, but I don't. What the Rockies really needed was a starter, even before news of Lopez's injury came down the pipe, and look at the starters who moved: Matt Morris and Kyle Lohse. No thank you and no thank you. In a few places you may read that the Rockies talked to the White Sox about Jon Garland, but unquestionably that was a deal that would have cost them three megaprospects (Ubaldo Jimenez, Ryan Spilborghs, and another major-league ready guy, maybe Clint Barmes or an outfielder) the way Kenny Williams' mind is working right now. Small-market reality is, folks, the Rockies need to hold on to as many players whom they control for the whole of the arbitration period as they can, even ones now seemingly redundant like Barmes or Ian Stewart. I know it's hard to imagine, but better miss out on the playoffs this year and contend for the next several than trade the future for another one-per-decade four-game postseason cameo.
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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