Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Colorado Rockies Lack Killer Instinct

The Colorado Rockies have stormed back from a 15-1/2 game deficit. They were fighting with the Nationals as late as the first week in June for the worst record in baseball. They lost their manager who was fired for losing the team. They stormed all the way back in just over two months to find themselves leading the wild card race and nearing the division lead. They have stormed from behind to win games in dramatic fashion several times.

For all of the heroics and late night drama, the Rockies lack a killer instinct.

When Clint Hurdle was fired as manager the club was 12 games under .500 and not even close to being considered a contender. The pressure was off and they started to win. In fact, they won 11 straight games and 17-out of-18 overall. They found themselves, at the end of June, back within striking distance.

Even still, they sat four games out of the wild card and several games back of the Dodgers in the NL West. Then came July, where after the Rockies played themselves into the wild card lead. They got to two games up in the race, at that point over the Braves and Giants. Being that it was July, however, it seemed irrelevant. There was too much baseball left to be played to worry about who was leading which race and how many games behind they were.

To end the month the Rockies hosted the Giants for four games and the Dodgers for three at Coors Field. After dropping the opener of the four game set with San Francisco, the Rockies stuck it to them, taking the final three games and giving themselves a comfortable four game cushion in the wild card race. At that point, the wild card was no longer the goal, a three game sweep of the Dodgers would put the Rockies in a tie for the division lead with just a month left on the schedule.

Then reality set in.

The loose Rockies, the ones who seemed to be playing with such ease, the Rockies who were managed by a new face who could not push the wrong buttons, the ones who came from behind late in games suddenly went away. The Rockies of April and May quickly returned. The team that could not catch a break and could not find a way to hit with runners on base was back. The team that was largely responsible for Clint Hurdle getting fired was taking the field every day at 20th & Blake.

The Rockies dropped two-of-three to the Dodgers and proceeded to head west to face a vengeance minded San Francisco club for three games in their park. The story is well known, the Rockies flailed and found ways to lose all three games. Forget the division. This Rockies team was scrambling to stay above water in the wild card race. Their lead was gone.

Then came a 10 game homestand in which the Rockies went 9-1 to regain their wild card lead, and once again set their eyes on the division. They hit the road to play San Diego and after the first game in which the late game magic reappeared, the Rockies proceeded to lose the next two, both in ugly fashion.

The main culprit? The bats were silent and when runners were on base it seemed as if the hitters bat weighed 35 pounds instead of 35 ounces. Everything that manager Jim Tracy tried to do failed. In fact, on Saturday night he used 10 additional position players, taking advantage of the expanded roster. That did not help, and the Rockies lost Saturday and Sunday.

Oh well, the Rockies still carried a 4-1/2 game wild card lead into San Francisco where they had a chance to bury the Giants once and for all. The only problem? The Rockies were set to face the same three pitchers who swept them out of the park just two weeks previous.

The Rockies went out on Monday night and looked flat. They looked like they had no intention of hitting Lincecum and that really, if they just were able to steal one game from the Giants, they would be in good shape.

That is the problem with the 2009 Rockies. That is why if they are not careful they may find themselves making other plans in October.

Great teams do not simply feast on weaker opponents, they rise to the occasion when they are facing equal, or even greater talent.

On Monday, the Rockies rolled over for Lincecum and the Giants. Instead of looking at this series as a chance to take two-of-three, or even sweeping, the Rockies looked at the pitching matchups and figured that if they take one game everything will be alright.

That kind of attitude is exactly what will run the Rockies right out of contention.

This Rockies team is extremely close knit. Everyone who walks into the clubhouse says that they have never been a part of a team that is so close. Jason Giambi instantly noticed the difference. It is mentioned on nearly every single telecast and radio broadcast. It is seen in the dugout, with players hugging on coaches, coaches hugging on trainers and smiles all around. There is no doubt that this club is close-knit.

While that close-knit, family atmosphere got the Rockies back in the race, it may be what takes them out of the race as well.

These players are so close to each other that friendship is more important than winning. They are more concerned with how much fun they are having before the game that they do not focus on the game.

Make no mistake, these are professionals, and they all have a deep desire to win. The only problem is that with friendship comes forgiveness.

What that can lead to is a lack of accountability. On a club that is not so close knit, a leader on the team can make a statement to a struggling team member without having to worry about what that will do to the friendship. Instead of simply hoping for the best for a fellow player, there can be some confrontation and directness that could otherwise be hesitated due to not wanting to rock the boat on a great clubhouse with great chemistry.

When there is no confrontation, players do not make adjustments. Players continue to take the same approach to the plate, to the mound our out in the field. There is no worrying about a player feeling heat from a teammate for failing to get a bunt down, or for consistently trying to pull the ball, or for swinging freely at sliders in the dirt. That behavior becomes tolerated because the friendship means more than winning.

If the Rockies want to win and go to the playoffs, they need to hold each other accountable and make no bones about the fact that they need each other playing smart baseball to make it happen.

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