Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Eight Games In, One Distinct Difference For Colorado Rockies

The Colorado Rockies beat the Chicago Cubs today 5-2 to earn a split of the two game series at Wrigley Field.

The game started out with Cubs pitcher Rich Harden striking out the Rockies in order in the top of the 1st. Harden only needed 13 pitches to strike out Ryan Spilborghs, Seth Smith and Todd Helton.

For Rockies fans, it looked like an all too familiar scene.

Last season when the Rockies faced a pitcher the caliber of Harden, if they did not immediately get ahead in the early innings, the average fan could sense the team folding. It felt as if the offense was hoping for better results the next day. The rest of the game was played lethargically, and whether the doomed Rockies starter that day gave up one run or 10 runs, they were destined for a loss.

In fact, last season Brandon Webb, ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks, went 4-0 against the Rockies. When the Rockies faced former Dodger Brad Penny, it was not even worth turning on the television to watch. It seemed to be the same story over and over again. Penny goes six innings giving up two hits and leaving with a 5-0 lead.

When the schedule came out, the Rockies must have cringed, seeing that they would have to face Webb and the Diamondbacks on Opening Day in Phoenix, a place they won only a single game last year.

It seemed that the baseball gods were laughing at the Rockies when the schedules were made. After facing Webb and the D-Backs, the Rockies drew the World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies. If that was not bad enough, because of an early spring training injury, Cole Hamels, the Phillies ace and World Series MVP was not ready to go for the first game of the season, he would need a few extra days, setting him up perfectly to pitch in the home opener for the Rockies.

All of this to go along with the fact that in the first 16 games of the season, the only three the Rockies would be playing at home were those against the champions.

The Rockies are notorious slow starters. In 2007, the club went 10-16 in the first month. Last season the Rockies were not much better, going 11-17.

This season though, the Rockies are clearly out to prove that this is a different year. In the first game of the season, the Rockies lit up Brandon Webb for six earned runs in only four innings. Although they went on to lose the game, it was not the fault of the offense. The squad scored eight runs total, continuing to pour on the offense after Webb departed.

Three days later against Cole Hamels and the Phillies, the Rockies offense showed what they are made of. Hamels lasted only 3-2/3 innings, giving up 11 hits and giving up seven earned runs.

Today the Rockies faced Harden and the Cubs. While the first four struck out, the fourth was probably the game changing at-bat. Garrett Atkins struck out swinging at a change up, but the important fact to note is that he struck out on the 13th pitch of the at-bat.

After that at-bat by Atkins, Ian Stewart stepped to the plate and drew a walk. He was the first of two runs in the second inning.

The Rockies went on to score another two runs off of Harden in the third inning, thanks in part to a Seth Smith home run.

Harden made it only through three innings, giving up four runs, but throwing 92 pitches.

Atkins strike out is part of what Rockies manager Clint Hurdle has been emphasizing for the entire spring. He has talked about taking quality at-bats. Sometimes quality at-bats do not result in base hits, but they impact the game in a positive way. In this case, the strikeout to Atkins looks bad on paper, but the number of pitches thrown was enough to get into Harden's head.

While the hitting abilities of Matt Holliday will never be questioned by Rockies fans, one thing that was often a knock against his abilities was that he swung at the first pitch more than 50 percent of the time.

Holliday collected several hits on the first pitch of an at-bat, but often times he was headed back to the dugout after a routine ground out. The pitcher just got one out with one pitch and felt comfortable about getting the other two outs. Even if the next two hitters had decent at-bats, maybe facing five or six pitches, the pitcher could easily get out of the inning with under 20 pitches. This allowed the starter to go deeper into the games and continue to dominate.

That said, Holliday was a player that any team would love to have in their lineup, but maybe the mentality of free-swinging penetrated the clubhouse and was not beneficial in helping the Rockies get the starting pitcher's pitch count up and get into the oppositions bullpen.

The season is early, and the Rockies will be tested by team's aces all year long, but after eight games, the Rockies new mentality seems to be paying off.

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