Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More Late Night Heroics As Rockies Shrink Dodgers NL West Lead

If Monday night wasn't enough drama, Tuesday night should be satisfying.

The Colorado Rockies, coming off a series in which they increased their National League Wild Card lead to four games, proved that they are not interested in leading the Wild Card race. They are in this thing to win their first division title in team history.

On Monday night Ryan Spilborghs was the hero, Tuesday night it was Troy Tulowitzki's turn.

After fighting back against Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw, getting two runs on a home run by Brad Hawpe, a certified Dodger killer, the Rockies kept battling. Clint Barmes hit his 21st home run of the season, four short of Matt Holliday's total in 2008, to give the Rockies their first lead of the night, then they added another run in the bottom of the eighth on a double down the left field line by Tulowitzki. Todd Helton was thrown out at the plate to end the inning, but the damage was done. The Rockies were winning 4-2 headed to the ninth.

Rockies fans have become accustomed to having a relaxing ninth inning, thanks to the shutdown work of Huston Street. There was one problem for this game. Street was unavailable due to his heavy work load over the last seven days.

That meant that Rafael Betancourt would take the mound, trying to earn his first save in a Rockies uniform.

That proved a tough task. Betancourt gave up a single to Juan Pierre, then a double to Rafael Furcal. The tying run was at second base with no one out. Matt Kemp then strolled to the plate and hit a sacrifice fly to Hawpe in right, moving the tying run to third. That was it for Betancourt, who stepped aside for Joe Beimel who struck out Andre Eithier, then stepped aside to let Matt Daley face Manny Ramirez with the tying run at third.

After throwing two perfect pitches for strikes, Daley got Ramirez to foul off a pitch, then went for the strike out on the high heater. Ramirez lined the pitch into right field, tying up the game. Hind sight is always 20/20 but the thought had to cross the mind of anyone in the Rockies corner, why pitch to Ramirez?

Regardless, the Rockies went to the bottom half of the ninth, and were quickly disposed of, leaving them with only one pitcher in the bullpen, Matt Herges, who is scheduled to work a chunk of Wednesday's game since Josh Fogg is not completely stretched out.

Herges went to the mound with Rockies fans wondering if he could shut down this potent Dodgers lineup. Six pitches later the Rockies were back in the dugout, ready to face the Dodgers in the 10th.

In the bottom half of the 10th Dodgers manager Joe Torre elected to throw James McDonald, a long reliever. McDonald proceeded to walk Ian Stewart, putting the winning run on base. That is when the flashbacks to Monday night began, with a chance to do damage, up to the plate came Carlos Gonzalez, a defensive substitute in the ninth inning. Gonzalez still has a stitch in his hand and cannot swing the bat.

With over 20,000 people in the stadium knowing that Gonzalez would lay down a bunt, the lefty laid down a perfect bunt just to the first base side of the mound. It was hard enough for McDonald to not be able to field the ball, leaving it up to first baseman James Loney. Loney should have held onto the ball, but instead made an errant throw to first, sending Stewart to third base with no one out.

After striking out Omar Quintanilla and walking Todd Helton, thoughts to Monday night's game were coming back yet again. With the outfield drawn in, Troy Tulowitzki knew that he needed to lift the ball and the game would be won. On the first pitch from McDonald, Tulo drove a go pitch to left center field, over the reach of the drawn in outfielders for the win.

At this point, thoughts were coming back again from Monday night, only this time, it was the celebration memories.

A jubilant Tulowitzki hit first base and headed to the outfield where the Rockies dugout, which evacuated on contact, met him.

The Rockies once again found a way to get the job done.

The greatest fear for the Rockies after last night was that they would suffer a hangover from the emotional late night that was Monday. The team showed up ready to play. While the offense struggled early against Kershaw, they kept fighting, which is the key to a good team.

Once again it is easy to forget about the outing by the Rockies starting pitcher in the late inning drama.

Jason Hammel, knowing how badly the Rockies needed a big start from him, delivered. He has struggled at Coors Field, coming into Tuesday nights game with over a 7.00 ERA at home. However, he put his foot down and despite giving up two early runs he was able to shut the Dodgers down. He also gave the Rockies enough distance to keep the bullpen from getting into serious overuse issues. In all Hammel went seven innings, giving up the two runs on eight hits. He struck out four and walked only two. It was an incredible performance which gave the Rockies an opportunity to win this game.

These Rockies could easily settle for the Wild Card. They have a four game lead in the Wild Card, which is not huge, but is significant. It would be easy for the team to take a breath and relax for a couple of days, taking it easy due to their sprint back into contention over the course of the last three months.

This team is not quitting though. They are finding new ways to win games. When their bullpen blows its fist save in over 25 chances, the offense does not panic, they simply do what they do best, get men on base and find ways to move them over.

For the key to this continued resurgence look no further than Tulowitzki. The shortstop plays every pitch like it is the World Series. He constantly is demanding more from himself and looking for new ways to improve his game. While he struggled early in the season, it was clear that it was due to him trying to do too much.

On Tuesday when he stepped to the plate in the 10th, the thought was not about him hitting into a double play, or popping out and the Rockies finding a way to blow a chance. The thought was that there was no way that Tulowitzki would fail. He was going to find a way to win the ball game, and he wasted no time in doing it.

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