Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rockies Overtake Giants For Wild Card Lead

If the season ended today, the Rockies would be in the playoffs.

After a 10-6 victory over the Diamondbacks, which was not as close as the score shows, and a Giants loss in Atlanta, the home town team is now leading the Wild Card race in the National League.

While celebrating a Wild Card lead in late July is not something that is generally advised, this one has special meaning for the Rockies. On June 3rd these same Rockies were 14 games out of first place in the National League West and 12 games under .500. They had just fired their manager and were for all intents and purposes out of the playoff discussion.

At Coors Field and on talk radio all anyone said about the Rockies was how their cheapskate owners dropped the ball and should never have traded Matt Holliday. They said that as long as the Monforts were the owners of the Rockies there would never be winning baseball in Colorado.

It is amazing what can happen in seven weeks.

After dropping three straight in Houston, the Rockies went on to win their next 11 games in a row, and then six more after losing just one. It was a run that conjured up memories of the miracle run to the World Series just two seasons ago.

While the core of the team from that run still exists for the most part, there is a distinct difference with this year’s club.

They are much better.

The 2007 club required great performances by two mid-season call-ups in Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. Those two had to be nearly perfect in order for the ‘07 squad to make the run that they did. While both of those players are extremely talented, the fact is, two rookies, fresh up from the minor leagues, both under 24 years old, rarely have the level of success that those two had simultaneously.

When Aaron Cook got hurt the Rockies turned to Elmer Dessens. Yes, Elmer Dessens was brought in to shore up the rotation. Along with Dessens, Dan O’Dowd made a trade to bring in Ramon Ortiz, a pitcher who had had success in the big leagues, but was three years removed from it.

The ‘09 team is a completely different story.

When it became clear that Jeff Francis was probably going to be shelved for the season, O’Dowd made a shrewd deal with the Cubs. He knew that Jason Marquis was a good pitcher but had been at odds with the club for two seasons. He wisely dealt embattled reliever Luis Vizcaino straight across for Marquis, a trade that will probably go down as the most lobsided deal of the ‘09 season.

While Vizcaino made four appearances with the Cubs before being releases, all Marquis has done is go to the All-Star game representing the Rockies and win 12 games, the most in the Majors this season.

In addition to Marquis, the Rockies have Jimenez, who has matured greatly from his rookie campaign, learning to be a pitcher instead of a thrower, and Jorge De La Rosa, a lefty who throws in the mid-90’s with a nasty slider and change up. De La Rosa was the weak link for the Rockies early on, but has found his composure since the middle of June. Previously he had been prone to the big inning, but has shown poise in his last six starts. After seven innings of one-run baseball against the Diamondbacks on Monday, De La Rosa evened his record at 7-7. Going into the season the Rockies were hoping to get 10 wins out of the lefty.

While there are still issues with the bullpen, Monday’s game should not be fingered as evidence of bullpen struggles. Yes, both Joel Peralta and Manny Corpas struggled and let the Diamondbacks crawl back into the game with five runs in the eighth and ninth innings, but it is easy to forget the score when they came in.

When Peralta came in for the eighth inning the Rockies held a 10-1 lead. His job at that point was to throw strikes and challenge hitters. There was no being cute or trying to nibble at the corners of the plate, he simply was seeing what the Diamondbacks would do with the fastball.

Same goes for Corpas, whose biggest hit was a two-run bomb off the bat of Stephen Drew. With three outs to go and a seven run lead there is no reason for a reliever to be finesse on the mound. His job was to throw fastballs for strikes. The lesson learned for Corpas is to keep the ball down, instead of belt high, where a hitter will make a pitcher pay in the worst way at the big league level.

With two games left in the series, the Rockies are making it hard not to look forward to this weekend’s series at home against the Giants. The Wild Card lead could easily trade hands five times over the next five games.

While it is easy to look forward to Friday night, the Rockies must not overlook the Diamondbacks, who took two out of three from them just two weeks ago. Game two of the three game series is Tuesday night starting at 6:40. Max Scherzer is on the mound for the Diamondbacks against Aaron Cook for the Rockies.

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