Monthly archives: September 2007
Rockies Get Shot at 90 Wins
Having finished the season tied 89-73 for the NL wild card, the San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies will play an 163rd game at Coors Field tomorrow evening, 5:30 local time. Jake Peavy will start for San Diego; Josh Fogg for the Rockies.
This is pretty neat.
It's On Me
I couldn't help it. I'm watching.
So either way things go right here, you know who's responsible.
Destiny Gets a Stomachache
I'm going to be straight with you: I'm not handling things well. Like most folk in the area, I didn't enter this season with even a tiny little bit of a clue the Rockies were going to overdeliver, belatedly, on last year's stated goal to "play meaningful games in September." Well, it's September, as late into the month as the calendar can go, and the game today has playoff implications. For the Rockies. The Colorado Rockies.
But unlike most other metro-Denverites, I have spent the entire season shoveling dirt on the Rockies. I'm a pessimist by nature, but this year has made me look a bit absurd. This team will not die, and I feel I only feed its strange resilience with my ongoing if's, or's, and but's. I got really fired up to watch the Rockies game as a fan on Friday night, dressed up, invited friends over, made an event of it. As suited the occasion. But the game itself was such a downer -- it was clear from the first that Brandon Webb had his Brandon Webb thing working and there wasn't much the Rockies could do but bend their knees when they swung and run as fast as they could to first -- that I panicked. I was having flashbacks to 2003 and 1998 with my former long-term baseball commitment, the Cubs. I had never expected in this year of all years to have serious emotional involvement in the Rockies winning or losing any games. I thought at best they'd win 75 games again.
So I've been relentlessly wrong, which is frustrating, and every time I try to take my medicine and admit it, the Rockies tend to swoon. Now I've become superstitious enough of a fan that I believe I may have been having a malign influence to them. I looked true fan commitment in the eye, and I blinked. I gave away my (single) ticket to the game Saturday night. I didn't really watch much of it on TV, preferring for the first time in my life college football for my complete lack of rooting interest. (Although, hey, look at those Cal Bears!) I couldn't bear the thought of a having to see the best season in Rockies history (and way better than any of the sentient seasons I spent as a Cubs fan, no fooling) end with a final on an out-of-town scoreboard. So with my eyes mostly shielded by my hands, I peeked in a couple times. It looked, to be honest, like the opposite of Friday's game. The Edgar Gonzalez thing, if any exists, was not in evidence as the Rockies made the last eight innings a well-deserved Coors victory lap with a four-run first.
Troy Tulowitzki hit a grand slam. He might be good.
Oh dear. I can't possibly watch the game tomorrow, can I? If they lost ugly it would be all my fault. What cruel fate is this? Finally the time I've spent giving the Rockies my intellectual (if not until quite recently my emotional) attention is paying off, and every time I flip over to just peep at the score I see a Rockies reliever turning to watch a double bounce off the wall. It's becoming just eerie enough to really start to spook me. Nope, must stay away at all costs from any information regarding tomorrow's game.
Directly, anyway. I did watch a lot of Milwaukee-San Diego, perhaps perversely, and look how that turned out. Clearly, to maximize the Rockies' mojo Sunday, I should focus intensely on that game with the sound turned off and the part of the screen where the scoreboard crawler runs covered by duct tape.
Of course, if they make the playoffs, then to hell with superstition. I'm going to the games. Besides, the worst will be over and they'll have made the postseason (even though they consider tiebreaker games to be the 163rd, or 164th or 165th, game of the season, they're beyond my wildest expectations and more than enough to make a rare satisified man out of me.
This Crazy League
With four games to play, the Rockies could finish the year with the best record in the National League... or miss the playoffs entirely. What a strange year this has turned out to be for the NL, only a season after an 83-win pennant champ St. Louis team annoyed parity-haters by winning a World Series they were supposed to lose. I trust you are all familiar enough with my outlook on the Colorado franchise to know that I don't find my team suddenly being one of the extra-frosted few in a box of 16 cupcakes to be a wholly positive development. I want to see championship baseball in Denver, and what I see isn't it. Yet. Remember when the 2005 White Sox stopped by Coors Field on their way to history? There was a rare three-game sweep where I recall one of the teams simply outclassing the other in every phase of the game. The Sox beat the Rockies in a blowout, they beat them in a pitching duel, and they beat them in a back-and-forth bullpen-busting football-score game too. I remember thinking at the time, "Hey, the White Sox are going to win the World Series," one of all too many insightful observations I squandered by not repeating to anyone or writing down anywhere.
You don't have to look any further than last season to find an example of a year when there just weren't any obvious favorites in either league. There won't be a 100-win club in either circuit this year, for what it's worth. Is that bad? No. Just like there's a distinction between mere All-Stars and Hall of Famers (and first-ballot Hall of Famers from regular Hall of Famers), some world champs are more equal than others. '84 Tigers, wire-to-wire dominance. '03 Marlins, not so much. If the Rockies make the playoffs this year, I'm absolutely not going to denigrate their accomplishment even though the Cubs, D-Backs, Phillies, Brewers, Padres, and Mets all look completely terrified to have to play baseball games right now. But, I'm also not going to be having a temporarily down league used as a rationalization for (further) payroll slashes. The Rockies should be trying to build the best baseball team they can. When (if) they reach that goal there shouldn't be a string of qualifiers at the end involving quirky playoff seeds and the Bowl Subdivision.
I'm almost terrified to write anything substantive about the team as it presently stands. I'm not so much afraid that I will jinx the team and then get blamed for it. There aren't enough diehard Rockies fans to really cause much of a ripple. Honestly, I just don't want to have to get angry at myself. It's amazing fun when your team is in a pennant race, even a watered-down, confusingly tiebreakered, sort-of-fake one. (When the wild card Dodgers were playing the division-leading Diamondbacks last week, before the Rockies blew L.A.'s season to smithereens, I gave up trying to figure out whom to root for after a couple of innings and went to lie down somewhere nice and dark with a cold compress on my forehead.) So for my sake and no one else's, watch me tread lightly.
Just saying: Willy Taveras goes out for the season, then the Rockies go on a franchise record-long winning streak. Coincidence? Well, I have probably hated enough on Willy this season enough to last his entire career (not that most of it hasn't already passed), so let's make a less specific conclusion. The "speed at the top" lineup that Clint Hurdle and the Rockies' TV guys loved so, so, so very much isn't the team's best formula for winning. Getting a hitter with some run-creating prowess -- like Troy Tulowitzki -- into the two-hole is much better than going with a guy with Leap Year power (Kaz Matsui). Thanks to Willy's ridiculously high success rate bunting for hits, he had a better year in terms of getting on base than Matsui. Still, I'd rather have Kaz hitting leadoff and Willy... somewhere not on the field because of defensive concerns. As Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan have been demonstrating in recent games, center fielders are occasionally called upon to throw the baseball (not roll it) back into the infield. In the grand tradition of about a billion other great-speed bad-everything else ballplayers, Willy has a rag arm. He never would have gotten Jeff Kent out at home on that tag-up play Sullivan made on Tuesday night. Matsui on the other hand used to be a great Japanese League shortstop and after a rough transition his first season at the position in New York has adapted beautifully to playing second.
Future Rockies intrigue: Apparently management would like Ian Stewart to try and learn to play second base this fall. That would give the Rockies kind of a lot of guys playing out of position -- Brad Hawpe used to be a first baseman, Garrett Atkins is stretched thin at third, and Colorado still doesn't have a real starting centerfielder -- but think of the power. Think of the power! Every time the Rockies play the Phillies I look at Chase Utley and think, "Sure, all second basemen ought to be hulking, lefthanded hitters who can hit 40 jacks a year." Why not? It's a good idea, right? Ryne Sandberg was a big dude. But on the other hand this plan could mean that the Rockies are going to cheap out on giving Matsui a deal more in line with his true market value. When Colorado acquired him from the Mets, they were so happy to be rid of him that they picked up almost all of what was left on the three-year deal Matsui signed when he first came to the States. Then he signed a one-year deal with the Rockies mostly out of gratitude for giving him the chance to not have to leave MLB with his tail between his legs. After this season? Teams are going to want to him, and the chances are very good most of them will be willing spend more than the Rockies. But, hey, maybe an infield of Atkins-Tulowitzki-Stewart-Helton can hit 200 combined home runs. That would be cool.
So This Is It
Six days, six games. Normally the MLB season extends a couple days into October but this year it ends, elegantly, on September 30th. I'm tuning in right now for the first of three games Rockies fans should be looking at, Phillies versus Braves in Philadelphia. The Phillies and Padres are tied one game in front of the Rockies for the NL wild card. The Padres play the Giants tonight in a game that starts shortly after Colorado's game in L.A.
Ubaldo Jimenez will pitch tonight for Colorado; he's looked good in his last two outings against the Dodgers. Los Angeles, who ought to be demoralized after the Rockies effectively ended their season last week (or maybe energized and motivated -- who knows) will unfortunately throw Brad Penny, who is always good against Colorado.
For the Padres it'll be Brett Tomko against the Giants' Matt Cain -- that could work. The Phillies are starting Jamie Moyer against Chuck James.
This doesn't have anything to do with the pennant race, but I have been following with interest this story about Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson and the childish rant her column about benched quarterback Bobby Reid inspired out of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. If you watch ESPN at all, you've probably seen highlights of Gundy's Jim Mora-esque tirade, which features a truly splendid (and unconvincing) boast of "I'm a MAN!" and argues that Carlson ought to know better than to pick on a sensitive 21-year-old major college athlete. Gundy's behavior is self-evidently silly, but there was a particular underreported element to the story that struck me. Newspaper journalists are a dying breed. 24-hour web feeds and highly media-sensitive athletes have rendered locker-room access almost completely meaningless, and the proliferation of opinionmakers-without-portfolio such as myself on the web has made "breaking" a story almost impossible, such as it is. So here's Carlson just trying to do her job and write a piece that really does take some intelligent advantage of her privileged access as a beat writer, draw some intelligent conclusions from close observation and just on the whole being a sports journalist. And all that wins the poor writer is some juvenile abuse from a coach who'd sooner hold anyone else accountable than his spoiled lump of a QB.
3-1 Atlanta in the first after Jimmy Rollins almost hit a leadoff homer that went slightly foul... and then did hit a leadoff homer on the next pitch. Baseball season, I wish you could last forever!
Six games left, three in Los Angeles against the Dodgers and three at Coors against Arizona. Sure, if the Rockies can finish the year 14-0... they'll have done that, and who knows what else will happen. Anyway, no breathing until they're mathematically eliminated. I see you over there. Quit it.
Here's the truth: I don't want to write anything about a certain baseball team because I've never before been in a position where I honestly believed in them and I'm half-convinced that it's my own repeated season obituaries that have made the team suddenly so good.
I'm watching the games. I can't think of anything to say other than that I wish more people were. Desperate last-minute regular-season runs are as much if not more fun than playoff campaigns and Denver baseball fans don't know that yet.
Is the Best Season Ever Good Enough?
Haven't known what to say the last several days as the Rockies have swung from yet another low (another disappointing home series against a bottom-feeder, losing two of three to Florida) to yet another high (sweeping a doubleheader against wild card rivals Los Angeles). Every time I've praised the Rockies this season, they've immediately gone on a cold streak, and I'm too tickled by the idea of having printed playoff tickets to call my very own to want that to happen. I'm a pessimist, but I'm not that vengeful. And if Colorado does finish hot I can attribute it all to Willy Taveras's season-ending injury.
It was something old, something new for the Rockies in the doubleheader sweep Tuesday: Todd Helton finished out the night win with a throwback homer and in the day game Colorado got a much-needed acelike performance from Jeff Francis, who struck out 10 in beating the Dodgers 3-1. Francis was lousy in his last start in Philadelphia, and the Rockies really needed him to be his old self with their bullpen running on hope and baling wire at this point.
I'll tell you a secret: I still feel pretty confident that the Rockies aren't going to make the playoffs, as I have for some time now. There's just too many teams ahead of them and too many weeks have passed with there be no change in the number separating Colorado in games back from the wild card leader. Every time they have a chance to make a move, like the two games they blew in Philadelphia or the pathetic showing against the meaningless Marlins, they show they're not ready. Some players are, Matt Holliday, Helton, Francis, and Manny Corpas notable among them, but as a team they need more healthy starters, more reliable bullpen help, and a manager with a steadier hand and more winning credibility.
So is a best-ever win total and a mention in the postseason races up until the last homestand of the year good enough? It's better than I expected for the team, and remarkable given the plague of injuries that for the second time in three years has mysteriously befallen what ought to be (given its extreme all-around youth) a mostly healthy organization. I still think it's going to take a multi-round playoff run AND a seriousness-proving long-term investment in a homegrown player like Holliday to get Denver-area sports fans back into Rockies baseball. But with such an encouraging second half this season, the possibility of those two conditions coming together in the near future seems far less remote than it did in the early months of 2007.
Phillies Turn Triple Play in Top of First
The big story about the Rockies last year, besides Jeff Cirillo being a baby about the humidor, was the widely-circulated USA Today human interest piece about the prevalance of devout Christians in the Colorado clubhouse.
Clearly, Satan is a baseball fan.
After they lost more starting pitchers in a week than teams used to use for a whole rotation, after their #1 and #2 hitters both suffered possibly season-ending injuries on back-to-back plays, after a grand slam was stolen from them on a botched fan-interference call... they start off their critical game tonight in Philadelphia by hitting into a triple play.
One so strange that the Phillies themselves weren't quite sure what had happened and tried to tag Cory Sullivan out a second time just in case.
With Sullivan on first after a ball fell in between Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand, Troy Tulowitzki bunted for a hit. Then Matt Holliday hit a liner just a few inches off the ground that Greg Dobbs gloved. Dobbs threw to Jimmy Rollins at short, who almost missed tagging second to retire Sullivan (hence the redundant throw back to Dobbs) and ran right into Tulowitzki coming from first to second. Triple play.
This is a game that you MLB.tv and Extra Innings subscribers will want to get in on. I can't guarantee another triple play, but the Rockies are almost certainly going to break the record for most pitchers used in a non-extra inning game. Nominal starter Denny Bautista allowed the first three hitters he faced to reach and he's already about to be pulled in favor of Mark Redman.
This is going to be a weird one for the ages.
Phillies 6, Rockies 5 (10 innings)
I didn't want to write about this one. I thought I'd give the Rockies another game and see how they responded. I've written them off before this year, and maybe they still have it in them to win three in a row in Philadelphia. It's not impossible. But last night's loss was a stomach-punch game if there ever was one. Ubaldo Jimenez continues to look more and more like he belongs in a contending rotation every start, and the offense certainly showed up. Unfortunately, every single call in this game went the other way, from a fan-deflected home run that wasn't to a walk to Chase Utley on a ball that clearly caught the corner to a strike called against Brad Hawpe that was at least eight inches off the plate. Also Clint Hurdle overmanaged the seventh and did that stupid thing where with a game on the line he put in the veteran guy instead of the best matchup and guess what, fastball pitcher Jorge Julio threw a fastball to fastball hitter Pat Burrell that might still be rising now -- it certainly had more than enough juice to get out of the living pinball machine that passes as the Phillies' home park.
Hey, at least Willy Taveras is hurt. Did you see Ryan Spilborghs' throw home in the win Sunday? It's possible Taveras could have thrown that ball as far as he possibly could, ran to pick it up, and then thrown it the rest of the way into the infield and gotten the guy out, but not likely.
Not a lot to break down about the season from here on out. No more losing, period. We'll see if they have the intestinal fortitude to come back from this. Hurdle has stacked the odds against the team with his continual tone-deaf use of a solid but overworked bullpen. After Jeff Francis, Josh Fogg, and Jimenez did their absolute best to save the relievers, Hurdle sabotaged their good work by going matchup-crazy in the late innings, preventing any of his relievers from getting into a good groove, and probably costing the Rockies at least one more game in this series already. Things were set up nicely with Taylor Buchholz coming off an injury for Colorado to hold him back for a three- or four-inning start in the infamous TBA starter game coming up against the Phillies. Of course Clint had to burn through four pitchers in three innings like an incontinent and leave an unprepared Buchholz hung out to dry in the tenth; once again, the Rockies lose a close game they had to win without using their best reliever, Manny Corpas, something that is becoming a Hurdle specialty. Corpas did have to throw one-and-two-thirds innings on Sunday but come on. You don't lose in extra innings with the best bullet left unused in your gun. Good NL managers know that. Clint is obviously not a good manager. Why can't he pull a hamstring?
Well, it's Franklin the Unready versus Eaton the Very Hittable tonight at Citizen's Bank. I can't bear to watch and I can't turn my eyes away.
Could the Baseball Gods Go Back to Picking on the Cubs and Red Sox and Leave the Rockies Alone?
You know, I get static from folks sometimes because I collect baseball hats and jerseys from teams besides the Rockies and wear them all the time. I've said it before: more than I am a Rockies fan, I am a baseball fan whose favorite team is Colorado. For the most part I am suspicious of people who only follow one team. That's great that you love the Angels, or the Pirates, or whomever, but you should still know the names of players on other teams and be interested in what is going on even after your rooting interest gets eliminated.
So even though the game last night was one the Rockies absolutely could not afford to lose, their ace pitcher facing off a team ahead of Colorado in both the wild card and the division race, I couldn't feel that awful after Jorge Julio took the mound in the top of the ninth and sealed the victory for the Padres. You just don't get to see enough games like that if you mostly watch Rockies baseball -- two fantastic pitchers engaged in a battle of one-upsmanship, setting guys down with guile and willpower. As dazzling as Greg Maddux was (man, I hope he pitches until he's 50), yesterday was maybe the best programming I've ever seen on the Francis Channel, and that's saying something. Jeff didn't have command of his fastball when the game started and he was doing his best to pitch to contact and give the Rockies as many innings as he could. Then he saw how completely dominant Maddux was and he somehow managed to will his control back. From the third through the eighth, the Padres were completely helpless. It was beautiful to watch.
The Rockies' offense got their chance, and in what's becoming an increasing rarity of late, they didn't seize the opportunity. Heath Bell struck out Matt Holliday (on an absolute bastard of a fastball) with the tying run on third in the eighth. It was a great backhand stop by Khalil Greene that kept that run from scoring on a Kaz Matsui infield single. That was the least of the drama in the bottom of that inning, as the Rockies somehow managed to lose Willy Taveras and Kaz to hamstring injuries on back-to-back plays. What is that? I mean, COME ON. We've already lost four starting pitchers, our secret-weapon long relief guy, and (long ago) our entire fanbase. This is not fair. You guys know I won't miss Willy one little bit (although the game situation last night was one of the rare times the Rockies found themselves in need of his particular skill set -- I don't have anything against Willy in a Dave Roberts role, I just don't like him as an everyday centerfielder), but it's no coincidence that Colorado started struggling back into playoff relevance right when Kaz Matsui's back spasms finally backed off (heh) and he was able to start playing every day in the two-spot once again. What's the difference between Kaz and Willy? Start with Matsui's huge homer on Friday night.
Seems Like This Has Happened Before
I'm afraid I don't have much insight to offer on last night's game. I felt guilty about it, but instead of watching the Rockies last night I went to go see Built to Spill in Boulder. The Rockies play 81 home games a year and Doug Martsch and the boys only play in the Denver area... I dunno, six, seven times a year. (They're from Boise.) Maybe I could have waited for an offseason show, but I didn't, and you'll have to settle for the ESPN game recap. I heard on the highlights show that Colorado used ten pitchers in the win over San Diego, tying a record. If it were any other team I would have much to say on the subject of the loony rosters-expand-to-forty-on-September 1st rule, but in this case it was my team that benefited from the stupid rule. Now that Clint Hurdle has the entire Colorado Springs bullpen at his disposal it would be a good idea for all fans attending games at Coors Field to bring along reading material.
Now I'm going to force myself to write about the Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus stories. I don't want to. They're awful and shocking and completely unsurprising. I'm sure I don't have any feelings that aren't shared by all real baseball people. Trouble is, writers avoiding the topic because it was too ugly and uncomfortable is a major part of why baseball's performance-enhancing drugs crisis has lasted as long as it has. Just as for years and years beat writers tiptoed around the subject, baseball's high-profile journalists were way too enthusiastic about accepting MLB's response to the Congressional hearings and the suspensions of such bright stars as Neifi Perez and Juan Salas as the definitive end to the era. Not so, and ignoring the evidence a second time would be much, much worse.
The steroid era might be over, if you want to go by the narrow definition of that family of drugs. Thing is, nothing MLB or ESPN or Congress did caused players to stop using steroids. The evidence suggests that the guys with the financial resources to do so had moved on to human growth hormone long before MLB even got around to addressing its fifteen-year-old steroid problem. Baseball's big campaign to stamp out steroid use has if anything compounded the problem by disproportionately punishing minor leaguers, marginal major leaguers, and Latino players in particular. Why should Jorge Piedra pay for Barry Bonds' sins?
I love baseball so much that I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to pushing the steroid thing to the back of my mind. Sometimes I even try to rationalize it away, reasoning that players have been gaining an advantage through self-evidently illegal means for as long as the game has been played. But little to no harm is going to come of 14-year-old kids trying to throw spitballs. Aspiring high school athletes using steroids or HGH is a completely different thing. Baseball's fight to get performance enhancers out of the game isn't ultimately about maintaining a level playing field (if they really wanted to do that, putting third teams in New York and Los Angeles would be a good place to start), or the purity of records (which is completely silly, just read the editor's note to Total Baseball sometime if you want to find out how utterly arbitrary and mutable many of the game's most beloved round numbers are). It's a question of social responsibility. By nodding and winking and handing out two or three no-name suspensions a season, Major League Baseball is continuing to send the message to young players that the rewards far exceed the risks when it comes to shooting your body full of rhino blood or whatever the next thing is going to be.
It's another one of those times that you envy the NFL, not because they've dealt with their own performance enhancement issues (not hardly) but because their weak players' union doesn't have the power to drag its heels on every single testing issue the way the baseball union does as a matter of practice. Roger Goodell in only a few short months as NFL commissioner has established a right to bring down swift summary judgement on those whom he perceives as damaging the image and integrity of the league whether or not they've even committed any crimes. For all the conspiracy theories fans of the players suspended would cook up, it might be the best thing for baseball if Bud Selig could do the same thing -- drop the hammer on Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus right now so hard their careers would never recover. Honestly, as a Rockies fan, I would accept a season-long suspension to someone like Matt Holliday or Garrett Atkins (not that there has ever been a single Colorado player credibly linked to steroids, past the hapless Piedra) if the greater good of the league was being served.
Would it be totally unjust to suspend a guy for a season or more just because circumstantial evidence linked him to HGH use? Maybe so, but it's not Ankiel or Glaus's rights as a citizen that apply. Baseball is a private business and discipline of employees should be its own affair. Too bad the short-sighted MLB players' union can't see the forest for the trees.
It's the Best Time Ever to Be a Rockies Fan, Assuming There Are Any Others
I have to admit that I still haven't gotten the hang of this Wild Card thing, even after more than ten seasons. I'm terribly confused about whether I should be rooting for division-leading San Diego or wild-card leader Arizona when the two play each other, as they did this week, and I feel like I need a slide rule to decide which of the early games on Extra Innings I should tune into while waiting for 6:30 Mountain Time to arrive.
Here's a handy rule of thumb: If the Phillies are playing, you should watch the Phillies. Something remarkable will happen. A few days ago it was a fresh-off-the-disabled list Chase Utley sending a home crowd into paroxysms of joy with a sweep-inducing homer against the Mets. Today, I watched in dull shock as the Philadelphia bullpen blew a six-run eighth-inning lead. With two outs and no one on and an 8-6 lead still, here is the sequence of plate appearances that doomed soon-to-be ex-closer Brett Myers: bad-hop infield single, bad-hop infield single, walk, and then a pop fly to right that Chris Roberson butchered with Willy Taveras-like aplomb. I would have been going out of my mind, had I not been so confused about whether I wanted the Phils to win or not. Weren't the Braves ahead of the Rockies just a couple of games ago?
They were, and now they aren't, and with a win tonight the Rockies will also move even with Philadelphia, who certainly appear as if they're destined to disappoint in 2007 just like every year. The National League this year resembles more of a death pool than a pennant race; whomever still has competent players (pitchers especially) left on Oct. 1 wins. Philadelphia looks cooked; Arizona is showing signs; no one has any idea what to think about the Dodgers, let alone Dodgers fans. And Colorado has a whole bunch of home games down the last two weeks of the schedule (nine of their last fifteen). In a matter of days, the Rockies have gone from dead and buried in the '07 postseason chase to maybe the smart-money selection to grab the wild card.
Granted, their pitching is horrible. A recent Baseball Prospectus columns evaluating the rotations of the various teams still mathematically in the race ranked the Rockies dead last, and they didn't need any vigorous translated stat analyses to sell me on that judgement. Any time Colorado sends out Franklin Morales or Elmer Dessens, they're just hoping to get four innings out of them that don't completely bury the offense under an unsurmountable lead. Now that the Rockies' lineup is strutting around like they can hang a 10-running inning on you any damn time they feel like it, this sort of works. It's not ideal by any circumstances but thanks to some underreported contributions from middle relief (Taylor Buchholz is my dark-horse pick for this team's second-half MVP), it's getting the job done. Clint Hurdle still seems inclined to overmanage the team out of every rally a sacrifice bunt or ill-chosen steal sign can possibly defuse, but on the whole the Rockies seem to have realized their identities quite late in the running of the 2007 season.
As much as it's been written by myself and others that the Rockies need to concentrate on putting together a winning pitching staff to sustain success, this season is obviously a complete outlier. Given recent franchise history, nobody in Denver will complain if a brief, unplanned resurrection of the Blake Street Bombers era leads to an out-of-nowhere lottery ticket to a wide-open NL postseason. That said, this Rockies team isn't all that Bomber-like, once you look past the high game scores and the brutal starting pitching. They have a legit ace in Jeff Francis. Although Hurdle tends to blunt its impact by using it arbitrarily and overfrequently, they have a running game with Kaz Matsui and Willy Taveras (and a bunch of sluggers like Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe who rank among the best in the majors at taking extra bases and catching pitchers napping despite unimpressive pure speed). They have a defense led by Troy Tulowitzki that might be the flat-out best in the game. While the mildly competitive mid-90's Rockies teams were built around veterans from other organizations whose best years were really behind them, guys like Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, and Dante Bichette who became specialized, pull-happy Coors Field marvels, this team's heart of the order three through seven is made up entirely of homegrown talent, pre-peak apart from Todd Helton, that can hit the ball to all fields and in ballparks at sea level.
One thing both of the high-water teams in Rockies franchise history (1995 and 2007) have in common is a bullpen full of no-names that's way better than you'd think it ought to be. Colorado's current group hasn't been a constant asset the way the criminally forgotten '95 rogues' gallery (led by, no fooling, Darren Holmes and Curt Leskanic) pretty much led an average offense and so-so rotation kicking and screaming into the postseason. However, they have a lot more indicators of persistent success in the latter-day case. There's no reason that Buchholz and Manny Corpas (and Jeremy Affeldt, if he re-signs) won't be fixtures in the Colorado bullpen for years to come, and "fixture" and "Colorado bullpen" used to be as antithetical as "Mike Hampton" and "canny, below-market free agent signing." Or "Shawn Chacon" and "legitimate homegrown ace." Sorry, sorry, one more: "Clint Hurdle" and "beneficial in-game strategy."
We don't know this for sure yet, but guys who make a lot more money than I do to read the tea leaves have been saying it with greater and greater frequency on the ESPN chat shows: If the Rockies do make the playoffs, Matt Holliday will be the favorite to win the NL MVP, and Troy Tulowitzki will go from a vanishingly small chance to win the Rookie of the Year to a pretty freaking good one, particularly if Ryan Braun and the Brewers miss the dance. So that's cool.
But the playoffs are their own reward.
Clint won't get a chance to mismanage the game tonight, as he's been suspended for "spraying" umpire Jerry Lane in the ninth inning Friday night. Obviously officials at MLB's discipline offense did not see the replay showing that Tony Clark was not on first base when Troy Tulowitzki tagged it but in fact in Flagstaff. And now that I've bent over backwards to praise Buchholz it turns out that he will be held out a couple of games with right elbow soreness. Journeyman Dan Serafini, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2003, assumes long relief duties. Dan Serafini? Well, he's no Curt Leskanic, that's for sure.
Ubaldo Jimenez is already down two in the first. But that's OK, we have them right where we want them.
Fans of Other Teams Call This Unusually Late Mathematical Elimination Thing a "Pennant Race"
Well, I have an obituary for the season all ready to run. I have for over two weeks now. But the Rockies can't be written off. Some short-term disasters against Pittsburgh and in San Francisco have somewhat obscured how well in the larger picture the Rockies have played in the second half this season, and the bottom line is that ESPN still has to list their name in the NL wild card standings.
I went to the game yesterday with the research department and was surprised by how casual an atmosphere there was. The fact that San Francisco between their decrepit veterans and nonprospect no-name position players barely sent out a single major league-worthy player besides Matt Cain contributed a lot. A tiny holiday crowd did its bit. Still, I have yet to see any sign of killer instinct in the Rockies. This is the only team in the league that can score seven runs and knock out your ace in the third and be honestly described as doing it "politely." Given that it's football season in Colorado the Rockies really need to have a team meeting to practice fist pumps, chest bumps, and insouciant post-homer bat flips.
The Rockies are having the best year they've ever had, and hardly anybody has noticed. I have to keep reminding myself. I guess it's unrealistic to expect everything to change at once, but it sure has seemed like a long hard slog to me. In order for people to get on a bandwagon, it has to have been moving perceptibly for more than a couple of weeks.
Trouble is, the Rockies have set the bar so high for themselves in terms of what they'd have to accomplish to win back local hearts and minds that this season is likely only to have larger significance if the team leaps another level from competitive to dominant and the Rockies lead the NL West wire-to-wire in 2008. That... could happen, but the catch with a reputation for futility as entrenched as Colorado's is is that evidence that nothing has changed is a lot more abundant and easier to spot than the tea leaves that spell out a bold and unfamiliar new future for the major league game in Denver.
I'm totally the worst offender at this. Nine-tenths of the time I am moaning and groaning about how awful the Rockies' management and ownership is; only when the team is at home and winning do I switch gears and start making noise about what a shame it is that no one pays attention.
I hope you agree with me that this is not a self-contradiction. It's management's fault that most sports fans in Denver take a "fool me 14 times, shame on me" attitude towards becoming really emotionally engaged with Rockies baseball. Cubs fans are losing sleep right now over the Brewers, Cardinals, and Carlos Zambrano; Rockies "fans" are having their Jay Cutler jerseys dry-cleaned and working on their denial about how badly the Chargers are going to throttle the Broncos twice this season. Which one looks more like a playoff team? Putting aside how lousy the NL Central is this year, I'd rather have the Rockies' roster, even with Aaron Cook, Jason Hirsh, and Rodrigo Lopez gone for the season.
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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