Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hammel Shuts Down Nationals, Helps Rockies To Wild Card Cushion Before Huge Weekend

Redemption is sweet.

Jason Hammel started the first game of the road trip in Florida and faltered. It was his third straight start in which the right hander struggled in. Hammel was struggling to get his breaking pitch over the plate and was getting hit hard. The poor performances began to raise questions of whether or not Hammel should be replaced in the rotation, possibly by either Josh Fogg or Jhoulys Chacin.

After the Giants lost in extra innings earlier in the day, Hammel was the only thing standing between the Rockies and a two game lead in the Wild Card lead heading into a huge four game weekend series with the Giants.

In his biggest outing of the year, Hammel did not disappoint.

The 26 year-old dazzled a good Nationals lineup. His curve ball was breaking sharply and he was locating his fastball. Hammel was perfect through 4-2/3 innings, and kept the Nationals off balance all night.

After throwing only 85 pitches Hammel was pulled after seven innings. He gave up only one run on just three hits. He walked two and struck out three.

While the first two games of the series against Washington were ugly wins for the Rockies, this game was well played. The defense was phenomenal behind Hammel. Twice Ian Stewart made incredible plays, once to his right and once to his left. After walking two and giving up a base hit in the fifth, Hammel found himself in a bases loaded jam. A ground ball headed into left field that would have scored at least one run and possibly two, was snagged by Stewart, who threw from the seat of his pants to Clint Barmes at second to get the third out of the inning.

While the bats were not on fire, the looked like they could not miss compared to Wednesday night. With the Rockies up 2-1 in the eighth and two outs, birthday boy Todd Helton hit a hard single to center field. Troy Tulowitzki then came to the plate and with a full count put a swing on a pitch that should be put on an instructional video. Tulowitzki swatted a low and away pitch into the right-center gap, scoring Helton all the way from first. Brad Hawpe then came to the plate and after striking out his first three times at the plate lined a ball into right field, scoring Tulowitzki and increasing the lead to 4-1.

After two perfect innings by Rafael Betancourt and closer Huston Street the Rockies had swept the Nationals and took a two-game lead in the Wild Card race and currently sit just three games behind the Dodgers in the National League West race.

The sweep goes a long way in terms of showing where this Rockies team is at compared to years past.

While the squad completed a sweep and a road trip in which they went 4-2, the Rockies are not happy with their level of play. They hit poorly with runners in scoring position and did not pitch as well as they could have.

In the past the Rox would have been thrilled with even a .500 road trip, and if they were fortunate enough to sweep a series on the road there may have been a champagne celebration in the clubhouse. This Rockies team, however, knows that they must hit better in clutch situations.

The performance by Hammel is a huge confidence builder for the Rockies. There was an unspoken concern that the fifth spot in the rotation was the chink in the armor.

Instead, on Thursday Hammel went out and put his foot down, showing that he can be effective and that the Rockies can depend on him to keep them in the game.

Looking forward, the Rockies now embark on the biggest 10 game stretch of the season. They play four games against the Giants, then three verses the Dodgers at home, then travel to San Francisco for a three game set.

The good news for the Rockies is that they will not face Matt Cain this weekend at home. In all over the seven games against the Giants Colorado will face Tim Lincecum twice and Cain just once. The key to success will be beating up on the inferior San Francisco pitchers, and then try and scrape one victory away from the three games against Cain and Lincecum.

If the club can find a way to take three of four from the Giants over the weekend they will be four games up in the Wild Card race with their future squarely in their hands.

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