Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jim Tracy Redeems Himself, Rockies Win Thriller

Talk to anyone about baseball in Colorado and inevitably what will come up is how different the game is at altitude and how many runs are scored at Coors Field. In fact, most believe that it is nearly impossible to pitch at 20th & Blake.

The people who continue to refer to Coors Field as the best hitters park in the league have not been paying attention lately. In the latest example, the Colorado Rockies defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in a classic pitchers duel, 2-1. It was as exciting as it gets as the crisp September air provided the feel of playoff baseball.

The Rockies are fighting for a spot in the playoffs, while the Cardinals are looking to lock up the best record in the National League, giving them home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Ironically, if the Rockies can hold onto their 3-1/2 game lead over the Braves in the Wild Card race, the Rockies will most likely start the playoffs against these Cardinals.

Facing the three toughest Cardinal pitchers in the series, the Rockies took on the ace first, Chris Carpenter. Carpenter is not only the leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, he is also a favorite for a more coveted title, Cy Young.

Carpenter entered the game with a 16-4 record and an ERA sitting at a tiny 2.34, best in the National League. To say that he has been good would be a huge understatement.

Carpenter is having a great year, no doubt about it, but apparently someone forgot to tell Carlos Gonzalez, who laced a double to lead the game off for the Rockies, after a sacrifice bunt by Dexter Fowler and a sacrifice fly ball by Todd Helton, the Rockies were up 1-0. The score stayed that way until the seventh inning, when Ryan Ludwick made Jose Contreras, relieving Aaron Cook, pay for a hanging breaking ball. Suddenly the game was tied at one and the Rockies had to be wondering if they were going to drop another game at Coors Field.

In the eighth inning Rafael Betancourt got himself into a jam, but proceeded to work out of it. Betancourt gave up a hit to Skip Shumaker, then crawled all the way back from a 3-0 count to strike out Brendan Ryan, a huge moment in the game because the last thing the Rockies wanted was runners on first and second with no outs and Albert Pujols at the plate.

Pujols came up and hit a good pitch into left field for a single, moving Shumaker to third. With all of the drama anticipating the moment, Matt Holliday strolled to the plate, looking to put the Cardinals ahead. All he needed to do was hit the ball in the air and the go ahead run would have scored from third. Instead, Betancourt got Holliday to hit a hard grounder to second base, where Clint Barmes flipped the ball to Troy Tulowitzki, who displayed his incredible arm by gunning down Holliday at first to complete the double play.

Huston Street worked a perfect ninth to set the table for more late night heroics. Todd Helton led off with a walk, then Tulowitzki nearly erased him with what should have been a double play. The ball was mishandled however, and only the lead runner was out, leaving Tulo at first base. That is where the game got crazy. With Brad Hawpe due up, manager Jim Tracy elected to go to his bench in favor of Jason Giambi. Giambi calmly stepped to the plate and delivered a single to center field, moving Tulowitzki to third with one out.

Next up was Yorvit Torrealba. After going down in the count 0-2, the catcher who has been a huge part of the Rockies latest success, knew what he needed to do. He lifted a pitch to right field, deep enough to score Tulowitzki and get the Rockies one game closer to a playoff berth.

After taking criticism a night ago for his micromanaging, Jim Tracy showed why he is a good manager. Baseball is a game of respect. If a player is an All-Star, he will forever be thought of as an All-Star, regardless of his diminishing skills. Brad Hawpe was an All-Star just two months ago. Hawpe, however, has not been playing like an All-Star for quite some time now, dropping his batting average to .283, down from nearly .320 at the break. He has just three RBI’s in September.

Despite Hawpe’s struggles, tradition in baseball says that a guy with a resume like Hawpe’s does not get pinch hit for late in the game with the result in doubt. Tracy, however, was not afraid to call Hawpe back and send Giambi to the plate. What would have been the typical managerial move would be to bat Giambi in place of Torrealba, or someone else down the line in the order, but not for a guy who carried the team in the first half of the season.

The move paid off, as Giambi set the table for Mr. Clutch, Yorvit Torrealba to deliver the game winning sacrifice fly. The win, combined with the Giants loss, has essentially eliminated San Francisco. They trail the Rockies by five games with eight to play. The team the Rockies are now watching closely is the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are winners of eight of their last 10 games and face the Nationals seven times in their final 10 games.

The win for the Rockies reduced their magic number to six, basically meaning that if the Rockies can win four of their final eight games they should be able to wrap up the Wild Card. That means taking at least one more game in this series against the Cardinals, the last thing the Rockies want is to have to win a series in Los Angeles to end the season.

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