It's the Best Time Ever to Be a Rockies Fan, Assuming There Are Any Others
by Mark T.R. Donohue
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.