Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rockies Win Another Thriller On Iannetta's Walk Off Homer

Good teams find ways to win close games.

The Colorado Rockies found a way to win a game in a huge situation on Tuesday night at Coors Field. Leading 5-2 going to the top of the ninth inning, Huston Street, the most dependable closer in Rockies history, gave up a three run home run to the least likely hitter in Jason Kendall.

It was only Kendall's second home run of the season, and at one point in his career he had gone over 900 consecutive at bats without a home run. It was not a good feeling for the Rockies, who seemed to be cruising, and with the Braves loss earlier in the night, the burden was lifting off the team's back.

Instead of being shell shocked and losing the game, the Rockies fought back and unlikely hero Chris Iannetta blasted a two-run home run into the bullpen to secure the 7-5 victory in 11 innings.

Iannetta was pinch hitting in the pitchers spot in the lineup and seemed like a long shot to contribute for the Rockies. During the current homestand Iannetta had a total of three plate appearances before the 11th inning blast. He has suffered through a tough season, with the low point coming when manager Jim Tracy officially named Yorvit Torrealba as the starting catcher.

Iannetta has long been seen as the catcher of the future. He is extremely strong and has the perfect body for a catcher. He is very analytical, which goes a long way for calling pitches. His strong throwing arm and quick mechanics make him a complete package. Before the season, ESPN's baseball expert and Hall of Famer Peter Gammons made the prediction that Iannetta would be an All-Star.

The problem for Iannetta in 2009 has been the strikeouts. Iannetta has long been known for his patience at the plate. Even his rookie season on '07, Iannetta had to be told to be more aggressive at the plate instead of walking so often. With just a .225 batting average, Iannetta has walked just 41 times to 72 strikeouts.

Chris Iannetta's season turned the corner with one swing of the bat on Tuesday night.

On a game that the Rockies needed to win, Iannetta came through in a big way.

While Iannetta being the hero came as a surprise, in this season, it really should have been expected.

This Colorado Rockies team is the definition of team. It seems like they take turns playing the hero role from night to night. Sometimes it is the usual suspects, such as Todd Helton or Troy Tulowitzki, but in this season of dramatic victories and incredible rallies, the purple pinstripes have a plethora of heroes in their arsenal.

Another Rockie working his way through a tough season has been Ryan Spilborghs. He had his chance to play hero on August 24th as the Rockies went into the 14th inning tied with the Giants at one run apiece. After Rockies pitcher Adam Eaton gave up two runs in the top of the inning, and while it looked like the Giants had the game wrapped up, Spilborghs made his mark, pounding the game winning home run to right field and sprinting around the bases to a cheerful mob of teammates waiting at the plate.

While Seth Smith has had a breakthrough year with the Rockies it is easy to forget that he really hasn't been an everyday starter all year long. In fact, he has been used primarily off the bench for all but about three weeks of the season. His role off the bench was not what he anticipated coming into 2009. After Matt Holliday was traded, Smith was ordained as the starting left fielder. That all changed when Dexter Fowler made the team out of camp and Spilborghs took over in left field.

Smith, however, has had his fair share of heroic moments. He came through twice in one home stand, the first time against the Diamondbacks, sparking a comeback from a 4-1 deficit, then coming through with a walk off single against the Reds.

Despite Clint Barmes' struggles at the plate, his over the shoulder catch on Sunday that started a game ending double play was a huge contribution to a team looking for every single win down the stretch.

Another unlikely hero has been Yorvit Torrealba. In San Diego with the Rockies down to their last strike, Torrealba helped Padres closer Heath Bell to his first blown save at Petco Park on the season. He laced a fastball into the gap, scoring three runs and helping the Rockies to victory. On Friday night against the Cardinals Torrealba did it again, taking an excellent approach at the plate, Torrealba turned an 0-2 count into a fly ball to right field, deep enough to score Tulowitzki from third base and giving the Rockies a huge win.

This Rockies team is well known for having a tight knit clubhouse. They are all very good friends and are very comfortable around each other. When Iannetta's ball landed over the fence in right field, the first teammate to hop the railing to meet Iannetta was Torrealba.

This team is full of players who care about each other and want each other to succeed, regardless of how that affects the playing time of the individual. They all want to win and they are going to find a way to win at all costs. Their relationships make it where despite a season full of struggles, a player can step to the plate in a big situation and know that their teammates are not just hoping that they can get the job done, they truly believe that they will get it done.

When a player at the plate in a big situation knows that his teammates believe in him it goes a long way for the confidence. These Rockies have become a very good team because they believe in each other.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Clint Barmes Provides Heroics With His Glove

Clint Barmes is a hard worker. He does not possess the natural talents to be in a big league uniform. In order for him to keep his job he must constantly work on his game, finding ways to get better. Through hard work, his defense has become better than almost anyone's in baseball.

The Colorado Rockies needed his defense in the worst way on Sunday against the Cardinals. With runners on first and third and one out and the Cardinals down a run, Ryan Ludwick looked as if he had at least tied the game with a flair into shallow right field. The ball was far enough over Barmes' head at second base that both runners took off, sure that the ball would drop.

As the ball flew through the air 42,032 fans held their breath for what felt like an eternity. Then Barmes seemingly defied physics and found a way to catch the ball over his shoulder as he dove to the ground. As he got up, right fielder Ryan Spilborghs alertly pointed to first base, telling him to throw to the bag to complete the double play.

It was the most intense finish of the 2009 season for the Rockies. That is saying something in this drama filled year. The Rockies have had their share of walk off wins. They have come from behind and basically found every single way to win a baseball game. While all of the previous wins have been great, none have matched the importance of this one for the Rockies.

The Braves had already completed the sweep of the Nationals, meaning that the Rockies had to win to keep their 2-1/2 game lead in the Wild Card race. A loss meant that the Braves were within a 1-1/2 games with seven more for them to play.

Barmes has had an interesting year. He could not seem to hit anything in the first two months. When Clint Hurdle was fired as manager, Jim Tracy moved him to the two-hole in the lineup. He thrived there, going on a complete tear. He raised his average all the way to .295 and was hitting balls in the gap and out of the park.

Then came July. The book was out on Barmes and the league figured out that he could not hit the low and away slider, but he also could not lay off of it. The second baseman found himself flailing at pitches, trying to pull everything instead of hitting it the other way.

Critics of Barmes complain that he takes a horrible approach to the plate with him. Unlike his good friend Todd Helton, Barmes is clueless when it comes to fouling off pitches. Instead of taking the outside pitch to right field, Barmes is constantly looking for a way to hook everything to left field. While he has found his power stroke, hitting 23 home runs on the season, he has also found a knack for striking out and popping up to the second baseman.

There is no doubt about it, when Barmes steps to the plate in a key situation for the Rockies, a betting man could become rich by placing money on an infield pop up or a strike out. Barmes has undoubtedly made many Rockies fans just as bald as he is after pulling their hair out watching him hit. The idea of fouling a pitch off until the pitcher gives in and throws a hittable pitch is nowhere in Barmes weaponry. The fact of the matter is, Barmes is not a very good hitter.

What keeps Barmes in the league, however, is not his offense it is his defense.

In the midst of Barmes struggles, Jim Tracy was asked time and time again if he was going to bench Barmes in favor of someone who might be able to get the bat on the ball a little better. Tracy, however, exuded extreme patience with Barmes, constantly saying that there is no one with a better glove in the league. Tracy's favorite thing to say is that if a ball is hit his way, it gets caught.

When Barmes makes a play like he did against the Cardinals on Sunday, it is easy to forget his shortcomings at the plate. The look on his face shows how much he cares about getting to the playoffs and contributing in some way. On Sunday, after going 0-for-4 at the plate, Barmes contributed in the biggest way possible, making the game saving catch, allowing the Rockies to stay 2-1/2 games up in the Wild Card race.

Clint Barmes catch may go down in Rockies history as one of their greatest plays.

For at least one day, Clint Barmes is the Rockies hero.

However, when it comes

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time For Rockies Fans To Step It Up

The Rockies entered Saturday night’s game with the Cardinals with a three game lead over the Braves in the National League Wild Card race. Atlanta had already won big over the Nationals earlier in the day, so the Rockies would need a win to keep the lead at 3-1/2 games. The Rockies mounted rallies, but ultimately fell short, losing 6-3.

Colorado has never been in this position before. Both times they have been to the playoffs they came from behind and clinched on the final day of the season. These are exciting times for the Rockies and their fans. The problem is, sitting in the stands, the excitement is nowhere to be found.

For years Rockies fans ripped on the Rockies ownership group. They accused them of being cheap, and not really wanting to put a winner on the field. Fans whined about never seeing meaningful games in September. They labeled the Rockies as a farm team for the rest of the league. They complained that Todd Helton’s contract was ridiculous and that he should be traded. They said that the reason that Coors Field went from being sold out every night in the early years, to whole sections being empty in the early 2000’s was because the team wasn’t a winner.

To be fair, Rockies fans had a point. The Rockies burst onto the scene with a playoff appearance in just their third season in the league. They wowed fans with long home runs and big scores in the mile high air of Denver. The pitching was bad, but no lead was safe, so a game at Coors Field in the early days was a guaranteed good time.

Then came the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle era. That changed everything for the Rockies. They tied up way too much money in two players who ended up being huge busts. That changed the Rockies mentality, and many fans were not willing to except the shift.

Dick and Charlie Monfort begged for Rockies fans to have patience as they grew their players in the farm. Most fans said that they would care again when the team was competitive.

With seven games to go in the 2009 regular season, Rockies fans have everything that they could have ever asked for. Their team is in its second post season run in the past three years. They have a lineup that is solid from top to bottom, with a pitching staff that is capable of carrying a team to the World Series.

The only problem, the fans haven’t held up their end of the bargain.

Sure, Coors Field was overflowing with fans on Friday and Saturday night. The only problem? They were wearing Cardinal red, cheering for Albert Pujols and pleading for the Cardinals to clinch the Central division.

Sure, all of the fans were not Cardinals fans, there were plenty of Rockies fans. The only problem? The Rockies fans in attendance could care less about the game.

With the score tied at three in the fifth inning, Ubaldo Jimenez gave up a double to opposing pitcher Adam Wainwright with two outs. After working a full count to Cards leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker, Jimenez walked him, leaving two men on base for Colby Rasmus. The at-bat was the biggest of the night. Jimenez would have to give Rasmus good pitches to hit, walking him was not an option with Albert Pujols on deck.

As Jimenez embarked on the biggest at-bat of the game the crowd got loud. The cheering started all the way out in the Rockpile. The only problem? They weren’t cheering for Jimenez or for the Rockies. They were desperately trying to start the wave. Their attempts failed on three different occasions, but these Rockies fans are persistent. They eventually got the right field seats to comply and the wave, in all its sold out beauty, was off, heading around the seats at Coors Field.

As for the at-bat? Jimenez got Rasmus to ground out, getting out of the jam and keeping the Rockies tied.

The fact is, Rockies fans are have never been real fans. They are converted football fans. They love their Broncos and everything else comes after that. If the Rockies win, great, if they lose, oh well, no big deal. The Rockies hold all sorts of attendance records, but people were going to the games because it was something new in town, and it was fun to watch Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla hit a fastball 480 feet.

When the home runs became fewer and further between, Rockies fans said that they would be back when there was a winner on the field. Well, Denver, this is the second playoff race in the last three years.

It’s time to step it up.

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.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jim Tracy Blows It For The Rockies

Ouch. This one hurts.

The Colorado Rockies blew a 3-0 lead over the Padres, losing 5-4. It was just the sixth time in 2009 that the Rockies lost a game at Coors Field in which they scored first.

After a three run home run in the first inning off the bat of Troy Tulowitzki the bats went silent, but that by no means was the reason that the Rockies ended up on the short end of the stick.

In the bottom of the sixth inning the Rockies had two runners in scoring position with two outs. Jason Hammel, who was dominating on the mound, stepped to the plate and grounded out to second base to end the inning. While leaving two runners in scoring position hurt, Hammel was pitching so well it seemed like the lead would hold up.

Then came the head scratcher.

In the top of the seventh Hammel gave up a base hit to Oscar Salazar. After Chase Headley hit a liner that was snagged by Tulowitzki. At this point, manager Jim Tracy jumped from his perch in the dugout and headed to the mound. Without thinking twice he motioned with his left hand to the bullpen for lefty Franklin Morales. Hammel, despite throwing just 87 pitches to that point and only giving up one hard hit, was done for the night.

As Tracy was standing on the mound waiting for Morales, some fans were left rubbing their eyes, for a brief moment the slender Tracy looked an awful lot like Clint Hurdle. Hurdle was well known for his propensity to go with his gut and take a starting pitcher out if he felt that he needed a matchup with the opposition. Moves like that are why Hurdle is watching Rockies games on television. One of the biggest changes that Tracy made when he took over was that he trusted his starting pitchers more, allowing them to win or lose their own ball game.

That is why it was so difficult to understand why Tracy was getting Hammel. After all, the right hander had been doing a great job holding the Padres at bay and Morales had struggled his last four times out.

The move was clearly not part of the game plan for Tracy, since he let Hammel hit for himself the previous inning with two men in scoring position. If Tracy was going to go to the bullpen, it would have made perfect sense for him to go to his bench, perhaps to Matt Murton or another right handed hitter, in the bottom half of the sixth. A base hit in that situation would have made the score 5-1 in favor of the Rockies.

Instead, Tracy elected to have Hammel hit for himself, then pull him from the game after giving up just one base hit in the top half of the seventh inning.

While pulling Hammel was a mistake in and of itself, who Tracy went to may have been the biggest mistake. Morales has been struggling since the beginning of the previous road trip, when he walked in the winning run in San Diego in the 10th inning. After that outing he proceeded to get shelled in San Francisco, giving up three runs in the ninth that almost turned into a nightmare for the Rockies, before Rafael Betancourt slammed the door.

Morales proceeded to walk two men, including one with the bases loaded, pushing the Padres second run across. That is when Tracy strolled back to the mound and went to Matt Daley. Daley got an out, but it came via a sacrifice fly, which plated the tying run for the Padres. Joe Beimel then came on to get Adrian Gonzalez to end the inning.

From there, Tracy made his next mistake. Beimel is a specialist. He is tough for lefties to hit. He has an awkward delivery that seems to come from first base. He is tough to hit home runs off of. He is perfect for situations against a dangerous hitter like Gonzalez. Apparently that was not what Tracy thought, as he let Beimel go out for the eighth inning.

Chase Headley led off the eighth inning with a single, and Will Venable sacrificed him to second base. With one out, Beimel gave way to Betancourt, who could not work any San Francisco magic. He got a strike out, but then gave up a base hit, scoring the go ahead run. After another base hit, the Rockies found themselves down 5-3.

In the bottom of the eighth the Rockies climbed back into it, getting a home run from Ian Stewart, and a base hit from Clint Barmes with one out. Jason Giambi came to the plate with one thing in mind, giving the Rockies a lead. Unfortunately for him and the Rockies, Giambi was rung up on a pitch that replays showed was off the plate and home plate umpire Jerry Meals had consistently been calling a ball all night long. Carlos Gonzalez then pinch hit and after a 10 pitch at bat struck out on a pitch in the dirt.

The Rockies mounted another threat in the ninth, getting Dexter Fowler on base with one out. Todd Helton flied out, and Tulowitzki hit a weak pop up to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and the Rockies took the loss.

With Atlanta having the day off, the loss put them within 3-1/2 games of the Rockies. Fortunately the Giants were unable to hold a late lead against the Cubs and fell 3-2, meaning that the Rockies remain four games ahead of San Francisco with nine games to play.

The Braves have quickly made themselves the Rockies greatest fear. They have 10 games remaining, seven of which are against the 100-loss Washington Nationals. The other three fortunately come against the Marlins who still believe that they are in the Wild Card race.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Off The Marquis; Rockies Righty Looks Terrible In Loss

When the Colorado Rockies stumbled out of the gate, winning less baseball games than any team in the league besides the Washington Nationals, Jason Marquis was the silver lining. In the first 2-1/2 months, Marquis won eight games after a Rockies loss. His sinker was nearly unhittable. When he took the mound a Rockies win seemed nearly automatic.

The right hander earned his first all star berth, tied for the league lead in wins with 11 at the break.

Marquis looked nothing like an All-Star in the Rockies 6-3 loss to the Padres at Coors Field.

No one in the league questioned Marquis as a good pitcher in the first half of the season. What all of the critics talked about was the consistent second-half falloff that Marquis has experienced throughout his career.

The 2009 campaign has been no different for the native New Yorker. Marquis has gone just 4-6. Coming into Wednesday night’s game with the Padres, his ERA in the second half is a half run higher per nine innings.

Marquis’ line was another night he would like to forget. Manager Jim Tracy gave Marquis the hook after pitching just 4-2/3 innings, giving up five earned runs on five hits. He struck out six, but once again created worry by walking five, three of which ended up coming around to score.

What the numbers show is what is incredibly evident on the mound for Marquis. What made Marquis so tough in the first half of the season was his bulldog attitude. Make no mistake, no one confused Marquis’ stuff with that of Ubaldo Jimenez. He has always had to work to get outs. That was why it was so much fun to watch Marquis take the hill in the early half of the season.

The former Cub was phenomenal at pounding the bottom half of the strike zone. Walks were a rarity, and Marquis allowed his defense to play behind him. His sinker was tough to get underneath, causing the opposition to pound the ball into the ground.

To the casual observer, Marquis is simply missing the strike zone too much, forcing him to give in too much, leading to balls being hit harder. That is part of the problem, but is more the result of the bigger issue.

The bigger issue for Marquis and the Rockies is his mentality. In the first half of the season, Marquis would bear down when he got in trouble. He knew how to make a pitch that would get a big out or a double play. If he needed a strike out he would get a strike out. If he needed a double play, he would get the ground ball that he needed.

Marquis’ confidence was so high that it never seemed that he was in trouble. He would just find a way to battle out of it. In the second half, that confidence is nowhere to be found.

When Marquis gives up a base hit or a walk, instead of feeling like he is going to get a big out, it seems like he feels defeated. He ends up giving in to the hitters, which causes more pitches over the heart of the plate. The home run hit by Will Venable was possibly the worst pitch of the season for Marquis. The hanging slider was not finished by Marquis and was drilled to the second deck in right field.

The Rockies, still having a tough schedule ahead of them, needed to win on Wednesday. All of the teams chasing them found ways to win, leaving the Rockies with a four game lead with just 10 games to play. The lead is still comfortable, and the Rockies are still the favorites, but with six of the final 10 games against the Cardinals and Dodgers, the Rockies need to pick up as many wins as possible against teams like the Padres.

The worst thing that the Rockies could have happen is for one of the three teams trailing them to go on a run. If the Giants or Braves finish their season 8-2 and the Rockies flounder in their final 10, going just 4-6, their will be a tie for the wild card lead. That is not something that the Rockies want to see happen.

It may be easy to write the Braves and Giants off, but the reality is, San Francisco has a very favorable schedule down the stretch. They play seven straight games at home against the Cubs and the Diamondbacks before finishing the season with three against the Padres in San Diego. The Giants are the best home team in the National League, and the idea of them going 6-1 in that homestand is not unreasonable. Then all they would have to do is win the series against a Padres team looking forward to vacation.

For the Rockies to win four more games they need to win the finale against the Padres, then take one over the weekend against the Cardinals three top pitchers, then defeat the Brewers at least once and head to L.A. and win at least one game in a place where they have struggled all season long. And all that does is get them to a playoff.

The fact is, these Rockies have to decide that they are a good enough team to play in the postseason and then bury the teams behind them. That is why winning games like Wednesday night’s are so imperative. It takes pressure off of the team and allows them to go into the final 10 games of the season with a five game lead. Instead, they are in desperate need of defeating the Padres in the finale so that they are not in a situation where they need a sweep to clinch their spot.

A win on Thursday night, with Jason Hammel on the mound, will go a long way for the Rockies.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rockies Win Another Drama Filled Game, Extend Wild Card Lead

A win is a win. Every win counts the same, but some are larger than others. This one was as big as it gets.

The Colorado Rockies picked up their 86th win of the season, defeating the Padres 11-10 at Coors Field. The win, coupled with the Giants loss in Arizona, gives the Rockies a five game lead in the National League Wild Card race. With 11 games to go, the Rockies should be able to smell the postseason. The Rockies magic number now sits at seven, which could allow them to celebrate a postseason berth before the end of the home stand.

The win, in typical Rockies fashion, did not come without drama. Entering the ninth inning with the lead at 11-6 Juan Rincon was unable to get his fastball across the plate, walking three batters. After getting only one out Franklin Morales was summonsed from the bullpen in the most stressful non-save situation of the 2009 season.

Morales gave up two hits, allowing two of Rincon’s runs to score and a run of his own. Suddenly the Rockies were staring at the tying run at the plate with two outs. Pinch hitter Nick Hundley, the batter at the plate when Morales walked in the game winning run less than two weeks ago in San Diego, tattooed a ball that looked like it was going to tie the game up. Fortunately, the ball was hit right at left fielder Seth Smith, who looked like he had trouble reading it but was able to make the play.

There is no doubt that Rockies fans have the greatest capacity of any fans in the league to hold their breath for long periods of time. Colorado seemingly have a nail biter twice a week.

The bottom line, however, is that the game goes into the win column and the Rockies gain another game in the standings.

A huge highlight of the game came in the seventh inning for the Rockies. Huston Street, out since September 3rd with tendinitis in his right elbow. Manager Jim Tracy made it clear that his first action would not come in a save situation. Street strolled to the mound with a two run lead. He left after throwing just eight pitches, six for strikes, with a strikeout. There was not a spot of rust to be seen on the closer’s golden arm.

While injuries are never a good thing (just ask the New York Mets), the Rockies may have received a blessing in disguise. On August 28th against the Giants, Rockies starter Aaron Cook came out of the game with a shoulder strain. He had been battling a sprained big toe, and throwing through that caused him to overcompensate and strain the shoulder.

Cook has worked his way back and the Rockies announced on Tuesday that Cook will start the opener of the Cardinals series on Friday night at Coors Field.

Cook, along with Street, are now healthy and ready to contribute to the playoff run.

Why were the injuries a blessing in disguise?

Cook has a history of tiring out at the end of the season. In 2007 Cook strained his oblique in early August, holding him out until game four of the World Series. In 2008, Cook’s first All Star season, the red head faded in August and later admitted that he was dealing with a dead arm along with a sore back.

The time off should have been long enough to give Cook’s arm a chance to get fresh again. He will have a chance to start two games before the postseason, allowing him to get sharp just in time for when it will really count.

The same goes for Street. While other relievers have been pitching in high stress situations, pitching on back-to-back days, Street has been resting his arm. The three weeks that Street had off has saved his arm at least 10 innings. While other contenders bullpens are wearing down and having to dig deeper for arm strength, the Rockies have a fresh arm to anchor their bullpen.

If Cook is indeed healthy, as Street proved he is on Tuesday, the Rockies essentially have two additional weapons that they can use down the stretch and into the postseason. That gives them a distinct advantage over teams like the Dodgers, who have had pitchers like Jonathan Broxton pitching almost on what seems like a daily basis. Broxton has thrown 71-2/3 innings so far this season, compared to Street’s 55-1/3 innings.

While looking ahead may be fun for Rockies fans, the focus must remain on beating the teams that they are playing on a daily basis. Being realistic, they need to win five more games on this home stand so that they do not have to worry about trying to clinch the Wild Card in Los Angeles.

Rockies Ride To The Playoffs Not Solidified Yet

The Colorado Rockies will go into Tuesday's game with the San Diego Padres with a four game lead in the Wild Card race with just 12 games to play. The sheer numbers say that the Rockies have nearly secured their position in the playoffs. That thought is hard to comprehend for anyone who was following the Rockies in April and May.

The Rockies fought their way back from 12 games under .500 to sitting at 20 games over .500. That accomplishment was nothing short of impossible. It has never been done by a team in modern Major League history. But then again, rewriting the history books is nothing new to this franchise, who two years ago destroyed the record books in their once-in-a-lifetime run to the World Series.

Despite the success, however, the race for the National League Wild Card is anything but over.

On paper, everything looks good for the Rockies. They are playing nine of their final 12 games at Coors Field, a place where they have once again learned to dominate since Jim Tracy took over for Clint Hurdle. They have the second best home record in the National League. The Giants play seven games at home and five on the road.

Four games back with 12 to go means that if the Rockies go 8-4 the best the Giants can do is tie. But that would mean that San Francisco would run the table to finish out the season. If the Rockies go 7-5 the Giants must go 11-1, Rockies 6-6, Giants 10-2, and so on.

To be realistic, the Giants are in need of a 2007 like Colorado Rockies run. That is, if the Rockies win half of their games.

It would be easy to assume that the Rockies will go at least .500 down the stretch. That may be a more difficult proposition than might be first suggested simply by looking at the number of home dates down the stretch. When looking through a magnifying glass, the idea of the Rockies limping their way to 6-6 in the final 12 games almost seems like a difficult task.

First, the Rockies play a hot Padres team. This is the same team that was one strike away from sweeping the Rockies two weekends ago. It is the same team that did not simply beat the Rockies, but fought hard to come back late in games, and found ways to out pitch the Rockies. It was a team that struck out 33 Rockies in the three games. Add in the intangible factor of the weather, which should not get above 55 degrees throughout the series, with snow in the Tuesday forecast, and what comes out is a difficult series.

Then, after the Padres the Cardinals and Matt Holliday come into town. The Cardinals have the most balanced attack in the league. They pitch well and hit well. Speaking of pitching well, the Rockies have drawn the top three Cardinals pitchers in the series. They face Adam Wainright, Joel Pinero and Chris Carpenter. The three have combined to win 47 baseball games this season and they round out the top five in wins in the National League. Throw in the fact that the Rockies swept them in a four game series at home in June and the series may be a recipe for disaster.

After a grueling series with the Cards, the Brewers come to Coors Field. This is a team that sits right around .500, but has vastly underperformed. Their talent suggests that they should have been at least in the hunt for the Wild Card, but their pitching just did not get the job done for them. The Brewers present a problem for the Rockies because their lineup can hit. That means that no matter how much of a lead the Rockies get, cruise control is not an option. Also in the Brewers favor is the fact that their closer has more saves than anyone who has ever played the game. Trevor Hoffman has once again reinvented himself and is having a great year in Milwaukee.

Those three teams figure to make for a difficult nine-game homestand.

If the Rockies have not wrapped up the Wild Card by then, they may be in trouble. Colorado heads west one more time for a three game set in Los Angeles. The Rockies are 3-12 against the Dodgers this season, and have never seemed to be able to find a way to get past their loaded lineup.

On the flip side, the Giants have a fairly easy schedule, facing Arizona five more times, facing Dan Haren only once. They face the Padres three times and the Cubs go to San Francisco for four games. With that schedule, it is not inconceivable for San Francisco to go 9-3 down the stretch.

If the Giants end up 9-3 down the stretch, the Rockies would need to go 6-6 to ensure their spot. That would mean winning both series against the Padres and Brewers respectively, and avoiding a sweep in both series against the Cards and the Dodgers. That is easier said than done. If the Rockies get swept by St. Louis, it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the club to win the Brewers series and win in L.A., something they have not shown the ability to do.

So don't quite dust off the champagne bottles at home, these Rockies still have more work ahead of them and they still have quite a bit to prove.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rockies Win, Increase Wild Card Lead

Finally, a well played baseball game.

The Colorado Rockies, struggling on a very important road trip, played a complete ball game. The bats finally broke out as the team beat the Diamondbacks 10-4 at Chase Field on Saturday night.

The Rockies took the early lead on a Carlos Gonzalez home run to lead off the game, then added another run on Troy Tulowitzki's 29th home run of the season in the same inning. Everything looked like it was going to be a good night for the Rockies until starting pitcher Jason Hammel made his one mistake. On a 3-2 pitch with two outs and two on in the bottom of the third inning, Hammel gave up a no-doubter home run to Justin Upton, giving the Diamondbacks a 3-2 advantage.

For the past week and a half this would be the point where the Rockies would quit. They would figure that their starting pitcher does not have his stuff and that there was no way to score more runs off the oppositions starter and plus-side bullpen.

Instead the Colorado Rockies took a page from themselves in June and found a way to crawl back into the game. The offense put up two runs in the top of the fourth, courtesy of a terrible throw from left fielder Manny Parra on an Ian Stewart sacrifice fly. From there Hammel made the Diamondbacks look silly.

With his curveball working well, Hammel has shown his maturity. He has turned the corner in the second half of the season, and despite not getting a win in his last five starts, he has pitched extremely well. Besides the pitch to Upton that was hit for a home run, Hammel really was on his game. He pitched seven innings, giving up the three runs on the home run, on four hits. He struck out five and walked two. It was Hammel's ninth victory of the season.

Hammel has turned out to be another example of the genius of general manager Dan O'Dowd. Hammel was on the trading block late in Spring Training due to the fact that he had lost the fifth starter battle in Tampa. The Rockies acquired him for Double-A reliever Anury Rodriguez.

While Hammel has had his struggles at Coors Field he has been able to do good things of late, giving up only one hit going into the seventh inning against the Reds his last time at home.

On the road however, he has been phenomenal. He has drawn some of the most difficult pitching matchups in baseball. On Monday he went head-to-head with Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and held his own. Unfortunately the Rockies offense was not good enough to keep the team in the game.

Hammel's hammer, his curve ball with a huge 12-6 break on it, has become on of his best pitches. He can throw it on any count and it is has such an enormous break on it that hitters have a difficult time hitting it even if they picked it up.

A fifth starter's job is to do exactly what Hammel has been very good at doing this season, keep the team in the game long enough for the offense to strike. The 27-year-old does a great job at showing confidence in himself. Often times when a pitcher gives up a couple of base hits, or walks a batter it is evident that they are wondering how they are going to get a single person out. That is when the big inning happens and it seems like the inning will never end.

Hammel is nothing like that. Even when he gives up a hit or two, or like Saturday's game, when he gives up a home run, the inning does not snow ball. Hammel regains his composure and finds a way to get out of the inning so that his offense can go get the runs back.

That kind of maturity will help the Rockies make the best run at the postseason that they possibly can.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Are The Colorado Rockies Falling Apart?

September.

It is the month when memories are made. Two years ago the memories that were made for the Colorado Rockies and their fans was the famous run to the National League pennant, it was of erasing a six game deficit and finding themselves playing the Padres at Coors Field in a winner-take-all one game playoff. It was Matt Holliday sliding somewhere near the plate and being called safe.

All the September memories smell like roses to Rockies fans.

What the Rockies have yet to experience is the opposite side of those memories. They are the memories the New York Mets are all too familiar with. They are the memories that include the words choke and collapse. These are the September memories that the Rockies know nothing of.

The fact of the matter is, the Rockies memories of September have only been good because for the most part, no one in Denver was worried about the Rockies this late in the year. The attention had turned to the Broncos, or to the Buffs. The Rockies have historically been so far out of the race in September that the only adjective used to describe the September Rockies has been “done.”

After a 7-5 loss on Friday night to the Diamondbacks, coupled with a Giants win in Los Angeles, these Rockies are getting closer and closer to hearing the negative side of those September descriptions.

The Colorado Rockies are still 2-1/2 games up on the Giants in the Wild Card race, and there is little doubt that the Dodgers will most likely find a way to take at least one game from San Francisco over the weekend. Regardless, this Rockies team is on the verge of falling apart.

On a crucial road trip for the team, the Rockies have scored no more than five runs in a game, and that came in Friday night’s loss. They are 2-5 overall on the trip, and the reality is, the two wins that they got were no beat downs. Both wins were not decided until the final pitch was thrown. In San Diego the Rockies were down to their final strike against one of the best closers in the game. In San Francisco the Rockies were one sacrifice fly away from heading to extra innings to avoid a sweep. The point is that in the biggest stretch of the season for the Rockies, they easily could be 0-7.

After a day off on Thursday to regroup and get some rest for the stretch run, the Rockies came back to the field to face a team they swept two weekends ago in Denver and they had Jason Marquis on the mound. It would seem that this should have been a game that a team hungry for the playoffs would find a way to win. After the Rockies went up 4-1 it seemed like it was in the bag and that possibly the Rockies were figuring it out.

Instead Jason Marquis, owner of a 4-6 record since his first All-Star appearance, pitched his way out of a win. Instead of being the first half pitcher who dominated games by attacking the bottom half of the strike zone, Marquis struggled to throw the ball over the plate, and when he did the ball seemed to find either the top of the wall or one of the gaps. The biggest blow came in the fourth when Marquis was able to get a double play to get himself out of a jam only before giving up a run scoring base hit and a two run home run to knot the game at four apiece.

Marquis was visibly angry with home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, who by all accounts had a postage stamp strike zone. Yet Marquis was never backed up by his manager or his pitching coach. Not once did Jim Tracy or Bob Apodaca ruffle any feathers by letting Barksdale have it for the close calls not going Marquis way. This kept the pressure on Marquis, who was unable to battle both the umpire and the batters.

Before it was all said and done, Marquis had taken his fourth bad outing in his last five times out, giving up at least four runs in each of those bad trips to the mound. In his last two times out he gave up a lead of at least two runs.

These are the losses that are debilitating to a baseball team. The Rockies have been in a prime position to bury the Giants in the National League Wild Card race for two weeks. While they played well at home, they have failed to be able to shut down their NL West opponents on the road.

The Rockies are not playing with a sense of urgency, they are playing as if they just need to finish the regular season with as few losses as possible. They are not taking the field in an effort to win every night, but in an effort to not lose. This is not the kind of team that will have success in the postseason. They need to get back to the killer mindset where no lead is good enough and where if the other team strikes, they had better watch out. Those Rockies are not coming to the ballpark these days, however. Instead, the Rockies who are trying to lose as few games as possible before coming home are taking the field.

If the Rockies want to avoid words like “choke” and “collapse”, they must find a way to get the swagger back that they played with for the majority of the middle of the season. If they cannot find it they may be in trouble.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jorge De La Rosa Dazzles, Rockies Hold On

Was that fun?

There are Rockies fans everywhere with purple faces, and it has nothing to do with face paint and team spirit. It has everything to do with them not breathing for a full half inning. Eight innings of excitement for Rockies fans were followed by one inning of hair pulling, heart racing gut wrenching baseball that ended up in the Rockies favor–barely. The Rockies held on for a 4-3 victory over the Giants, giving them a more comfortable 3-1/2 game lead in the NL Wild Card race.

For eight innings Jorge De La Rosa put on an absolute clinic. In his eight innings the lefty gave up just three hits, he walked two and struck out nine. His biggest inning came in the sixth when De La Rosa gave up a four pitch walk to Nate Schierholtz before giving up a bloop base hit on an 0-2 pitch to pinch hitter Rich Aurilia. Both runners advanced a base after a wild pitch, putting two Giants in scoring position with no one out and the top of the San Francisco lineup ready to step to the plate.

Three months ago, De La Rosa would have collapsed. The only thing unpredictable about the result would be how the Giants would deliver, it seemed as if De La Rosa could find a new way to blow up every single game.

That Jorge De La Rosa, however, is nowhere to be found.

The hard-throwing lefty was able to strike out Andres Torres, then past batting champion Freddy Sanchez, and with two outs after eight pitches, he was able to strike out the most potent member of the Giants lineup in Pablo Sandoval. It was the biggest moment of De La Rosa’s career, and the biggest example of how far De La Rosa has come in just a few short months.

The ninth is when it got really interesting. With the Rockies up 4-0 Jim Tracy elected to go to interim closer Franklin Morales. Morales gave up three straight hits and a run before Tracy had seen enough. With runners on first and second base and no one out Rafael Betancourt stepped onto the mound in the toughest save situation in his career.

The Rockies were looking for a double play to get them closer to the win. That is exactly what happened when Juan Uribe hit a tailor-made ground ball to Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo rushed the ball to second baseman Clint Barmes who watched the ball hit his glove and trickle into the outfield. Just as the Rockies breathed a sigh of relief, the defense made it even more stressful.

With the tying run at third base, and still no one out, Betancourt did a masterful job.

He got Edgar Renteria, who had hit a grand slam off of him last time in San Francisco, to hit a lazy pop fly to Barmes at second base. Then he got Aaron Rowand to ground out to Todd Helton, allowing the third run of the inning to score. With the tying run in scoring position, Betancourt dug deep and got Schierholz to strike out on a 2-2 pitch, allowing the Rockies, along with the state of Colorado to let out quite possibly the largest sigh of relief in the Rockies 17 year history. As ugly as the ninth inning was for the Rockies, the win gives them a commanding 3-1/2 game lead in the Wild Card race with just 15 more games on the schedule.

The game will be remembered for the last inning, as it should be. However, ask any member of the Rockies organization why this team won the ball game and there will be no answer besides Jorge De La Rosa.

His value to this team cannot be understated. In April he found himself in danger of losing his spot in the rotation after starting the year 0-6. With the win on Wednesday night he finds himself with a 15-9 record. He is tied with Jason Marquis for the most wins on the ball club after not recording his first win until June.

The lefty has figured out what was holding his career back after three organizations gave up on him, despite his ace-like repertoire. His lack of success had nothing to do with him not being able to throw a good slider, or throw a fastball for a strike, but rather his problem was in his lack of confidence.

When bad luck seemed to strike De La Rosa, instead of battling through it and finding a way to minimize the damage, he would get down on himself. His body language would turn to a mope and those watching him on the mound could tell that he was wondering whether he was good enough to be pitching at that level.

After working hard, and even sitting down with the team councilor on a regular basis, De La Rosa has been able to forget everything that happened in the past and focus on what he can do at that exact moment. It has turned his career around, and on a must-win game in San Francisco, gave the Rockies a little more breathing room in their hunt for the playoffs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rockies Lose Lackluster Game Against Giants, Backs Against The Wall

So much for burying the Giants. After the second straight lackluster night in San Francisco, the Rockies found themselves up just 2-1/2 games in the National League Wild Card race.

With a 4-1/2 game lead coming into the series, it was well reported that if the Rockies won just one game in the series, they would be just fine. That is still possible, but after the way the Rockies played on Monday and Tuesday night, winning a game on Wednesday night against Matt Cain seems as close to impossible as it gets.

However, the fact remains that while the Rockies were shooting for a good series in San Francisco, they knew that if they were able to take one out of the three games they would be just fine. It is a tall order, but stranger things have happened. The Rockies can go to their hotel rooms tonight knowing that if they can shower off the previous two nights, they have a one game opportunity to stick it to the Giants and go into the final 15 ball games with a 3-1/2 game lead, a very difficult amount of games to make up in just over two weeks.

While the Rockies were blown out on Tuesday, the game hinged on one play.

In the bottom of the first inning Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez got into trouble. He gave up a walk, a base hit, and a walk to the Giants to load the bases with no one out. Jimenez reached deep and struck out Pablo Sandoval. He was not out of trouble, but had a perfect opportunity to work his way out of the jam facing Bengie Molina, the slowest runner in baseball. Jimenez delivered, getting a tailor-made double play ground ball to third baseman Garrett Atkins. Atkins, however, botched the ground ball, allowing a run to score and keeping the bases loaded with just one out. The Giants scored three runs in the inning and the game was over.

Atkins was in the lineup because the Giants had lefty Barry Zito on the mound and Jim Tracy wanted to stack the lineup with right handed hitters to improve his odds at the plate after four straight pathetic offensive performances. The only problem with that thought is the amount of defense given up at third base. It would be different if Atkins provided a solid bat. That would be worth the loss of defense, but Atkins has been anything but an offensive lift with his .223 batting average.

Atkins also made another error on the night and bobbled all four balls that were hit to him. His defense make any hope the Rockies had of being in the game float away in the breeze off of the bay.

Despite the loss, and the four game losing streak, the Rockies have a golden opportunity to regain a cushion in the wild card race. If they are able to string together a few good at bats and get on the board against Matt Cain, they may be able to salvage the final game of the series which would put the Giants against the wall and give the Rockies an excellent opportunity to slam the door shut on them in the next week.

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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jim Tracy Is Costing The Rockies Games By Sticking With Clint Barmes

Make no mistake, Jim Tracy is the reason that the Colorado Rockies have a firm hold on the National League Wild Card race.

That said, Jim Tracy’s run of pushing all of the right buttons has come to an end.

When Tracy took over for Clint Hurdle on May 29th, the Rockies were 12 games under .500 and 15-1/2 games out of first place in the NL West race. They were vastly underachieving and could not find their identity. 3-1/2 months later the Rockies are a team that is known for never quitting, and finding a way to win on any given night. More importantly, they are known as a playoff contender.

With Tracy at the reigns things changed immediately. Clint Barmes was moved to the two-hole in the lineup, giving him the protection of hitting in front of Todd Helton. Tracy also planted struggling third baseman Garrett Atkins on the bench in favor of emerging star Ian Stewart.

Both moves paid off immediately. Barmes went on the biggest tear of his career, watching his batting average shoot above .290. He was hitting doubles and hitting home runs that was unmatched by any second baseman in baseball, including Philadelphia slugger Chase Utley. Stewart became less hesitant at the plate and found a rhythm, finding his power stroke. He also brought a better glove with him to third base, improving the defense on the infield.

Beyond the lineup, Tracy also made a huge impact on the team’s pitching.

Clint Hurdle was known for sticking to pitch counts. Rarely would a starting pitcher throw more than 100 pitches. Regardless of the situation, Hurdle would go to his bullpen once the starting pitcher finished out the inning that he hit 100 pitches in.

The bullpen was a whole different story. Hurdle was known for going with the “hot hand” out of the ‘pen, which sometimes worked in his favor, but often times resulted in pitchers not knowing their roll. In baseball, if there is one thing that a player hopes for, it is stability.

Tracy changed that quickly. Brad Hawpe was quoted as saying that he felt that Tracy made less decisions with his gut than Hurdle. He was more methodical about it and because of that, players knew their roll.

However, in recent weeks, especially since the rosters have expanded after September 1st, it seems that Tracy is over managing. Instead of methodically having a game plan, it looks as if Tracy has started to manage with his gut. He is being too fine with the players and trying to force the situation, instead of relying on the talent that he has on the field and letting the game play out.

One example is Barmes. The second baseman is well known for his defensive wizardry. He makes a great play nearly everyday at second base, saving the starting pitcher pitches and runs. The problem with Barmes, however, is that he is mired in a slump that has lasted since the All Star break and has seen his .290 batting average drop to .242 after an 0-for-3 performance at the plate on Sunday.

Since his tear in June, the league has figured out that Barmes struggles with breaking balls low and away. They are not strikes, but he cannot lay off of them. The league has adjusted to Barmes, but Barmes has yet to adjust to the league.

When Barmes steps to the plate the outcome has become annoyingly predictable. He will either hit a weak pop up to the second baseman, or simply strike out on a pitch in the dirt.

His problem is that he is trying to pull everything to the left side, which makes him way in front of the off speed pitch, causing the pop up. Barmes has not figured out how to keep his weight back and foul off pitches that he cannot drive.

Despite Barmes’ struggles, Tracy has stuck with him. He refers to his excellent glove work at second base as his reasoning. The problem is, with Barmes in the lineup Tracy helps his pitcher get one or two extra outs every night, but he sacrifices four outs at the plate. Oftentimes those four outs at the plate come with runners in scoring position when a base hit or a sacrifice fly would really help the team. If his glove is the reason he consistently starts, there is no reason that glove man Omar Quintanilla should remain stagnant on the bench. He is every bit as good defensively as Barmes, but is better at playing small ball at the plate. He is quite capable of laying down a quality bunt or hitting a ball in the air when he needs to.

The better option, however, is to play Eric Young Jr. at second base. While scouts have said that his defense is sub-par on the infield, he has shown an ability to create an energy on the field and produce at the plate. After a pinch-hit on Sunday, Young is hitting .333, 12-for-36, since being called up. Young also possesses the ability to steal bases with his blazing speed. He creates a whole new dynamic for the Rockies lineup, but yet remains on the bench while Barmes continues to play his undisciplined style of baseball at the plate, hurting the Rockies offensive rhythm.

Tracy has mixed and matched well since taking over, and is well deserving of the honor that most likely will be bestowed upon him of Manager of the Year, but his decision to leave Barmes in the starting lineup consistently is hurting the Rockies chances of capturing a playoff berth, and it is hurting their chances of winning their first ever National League West championship.

Rockies Eight Game Winning Streak Comes To An End

Yorvit Torrealba did his best to be the hero for the second night in a row, but the Colorado Rockies ended up losing in the 10th inning on a bases loaded walk to pinch hitter Nick Hundley.

Torrealba, who hit a bases clearing double in the ninth inning on Friday night to break up a shutout and hand Heath Bell his first blown save of the season at Petco Park, drove in pinch runner Dexter Fowler from second base with a hard hit ball up the middle in the ninth inning on Saturday. The run tied the game at two apiece.

It seemed like it was going to happen again for the Rockies. Since Jim Tracy took over as manager of the Rockies in late May, it seems like the club is going to find a way to win baseball games. Saturday night it simply did not work out for them.

While the Rockies have been finding ways to win, their bats have not been doing the job.

It is difficult to find something negative about a team that lost their first game in nine days, and had won 11 out of 12, but the fact is, this team has been vastly under performing at the plate.

In their 5-1 win over the Reds on Thursday the Rockies scored in just one inning. All five runs came in the third inning, and all of the runs came with two outs.

On Friday, the Rockies were being shutout by the Padres on a day when their starting pitcher had never thrown more than four innings at a time in the big leagues. They went eight scoreless innings before magically coming through, again with two outs.

On Saturday Colorado did not get their first run until the seventh inning when Troy Tulowitzki hit a long pop fly that landed in the first row of the left field seats. After that they got the lone run in the ninth to send the game to extra innings.

While in the four games given as an example the Rockies went 3-1, it could have easily gone the other way.

On Thursday afternoon at Coors Field if Reds pitcher Kip Wells had simply found a way to get one more out instead of giving up a couple of walks and a big double to Jason Giambi, the Rockies would have not scored, and the Reds would have been on top.

On Friday if Heath Bell had thrown a slider to Torrealba instead of a fastball, the Padres could have walked away with the win.

“What if’s” are a huge part of sports, but the fact is, they are “what if’s” because they never happened. The fact is, the Rockies came out on top of those games and gained ground in the National League Wild Card race. A win on Saturday night, however, would have all but ensured at least a Wild Card berth for the Rockies.

With the Dodgers trouncing of the Giants once again at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Rockies remain 5-1/2 games up on both the Giants and the Marlins in the Wild Card race, a lead that is not impossible to come back from, but would take quite the run by either one of those teams, and a Met’s like falling apart on the part of the Rockies.

The Rockies, however, can only do their part. They need to continue to find ways to win games and take as many wins away from teams they are superior to as they can. The Rockies by no means have an easy schedule down the home stretch. They play three more games in both San Francisco and Los Angeles and they play three games at home against the NL best Cardinals, along with three games against a very formidable Brewers team. To say that the Rockies have an easy schedule down the stretch would be incorrect.

The key for the Rockies is going to be to win at every chance they have. That means winning games in San Diego, and Arizona. Winning those games will help to take some of the pressure off of winning games in San Francisco, where the Rockies historically struggle.

If the Rockies can win on Sunday against the Padres, they will ensure themselves of at least a 5-1/2 game cushion over the Giants heading into that three game series. That will mean that if the Rockies can get at least one of those games, they will head out of the bay with a 4-1/2 game lead with the Giants heading back to Los Angeles to face a Dodger team that they have struggled with.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Yorvit Torrealba Latest To Provide Late Night Drama For The Rockies

Never, ever go to sleep on these Rockies.

On a night that seemed prime for a letdown, the Rockies came off the deck in the ninth inning, off perhaps the best closer in the National League, to win 4-1 against the Padres in San Diego.

After completing a 10 game home stand in which the Rockies went 9-1, the Rockies were going on the road to face a hot San Diego team, winners of their last five series. It would have been easy for the Rockies to have a lapse in focus. In the early part of the game, it seemed like it might be just that.

Jorge De La Rosa came out and loaded the bases in the first inning, then walked in the Padres first run. He was able to wiggle out of the situation and limit the damage to just the one run. It looked, however, like De La Rosa may be in for a bad night. Instead, he gathered his composure and shut the Padres down over the next six innings. In fact, De La Rosa's stuff may have been better on Friday than all season long.

The Padres, basically starting with their bullpen after Double-A call up Mat Latos was shut down for the season due to a high amount of innings, were effective in shutting down the Rockies for the first eight innings. With only three hits in the game, the Rockies went into the ninth inning facing the Padres best pitcher, Heath Bell.

Bell, who had yet to blow a save at Petco Park and had blown only three saves all season, quickly realized how resilient this Rockies team is. After starting the inning out with a Todd Helton walk, Bell got Troy Tulowitzki to fly out to right field. Brad Hawpe grounded a seeing-eye single to left field, then after a walk to pinch hitter Jason Giambi, and a strike out to pinch hitter Matt Murton, Yorvit Torrealba stepped to the plate representing the Rockies last hope. After working the count to 2-2, Torrealba lined a fastball into the right-center gap for a bases clearing triple. The Rockies dugout went crazy and after a quick 1-2-3 inning the Rockies had locked up yet another win and gained yet another game on the Giants and Marlins in the NL Wild Card race.

The late inning magic is absolutely incredible. This team truly believes that they are going to win every single game that they play. They never quit.

As the Rockies are in the midst of another late season run, the inevitable comparisons to 2007 are starting to be thrown around. With the Rockies not being a favorite at the season's commencement, and then stumbling out of the gate, it makes sense to compare the two teams. Yet, there is a distinct difference.

In 2007, the Rockies essentially knew that they would have to win every game down the stretch to have a chance at the playoffs. On September 14th they found themselves six games out of the Wild Card race, behind four teams. To say that the odds were against them would be a huge understatement.

The '07 squad was young. They were talented, but to a certain degree they were raw. They had only one true veteran leader in the clubhouse in Todd Helton. To roll off the streak that they did, winning 14 out of 15 to win the Wild Card, they played in a dream world. They found ways to win, and stayed in a near euphoric state in order to not realize what they were doing. If they had a chance to take a breath, they may have faltered, and they knew it.

This squad is experienced. They were on the wild ride that was 2007 and they are older. They know that they are good, and they know how to win. This Colorado Rockies team can win at home and on the road. They go out every single night and expect to win, regardless of who is on the mound.

Winning a series is no longer the goal. These Rockies want to win every single game that they play, and they believe that they will. It does not matter if they are losing with two outs in the ninth, they believe that they are going to find a way to win the ball game. That is exactly what happened on Friday night in San Diego.

The Rockies look to gain another game on either the Giants or Dodgers on Saturday night. Highly touted prospect Esmil Rogers will make his Major League debut for the Rockies, taking the rotation spot of Ubaldo Jimenez who was pushed back to Tuesday with his hamstring injury.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rockies Winning Games Thanks To Their Depth

National League West watch out, here come the Colorado Rockies.

After being swept in San Francisco, giving away their four game wild card lead, the Rockies have fought back and won the games that they needed to win. After Thursday's 5-1 win over the Reds, the Rockies completed a 9-1 home stand in which they gained 4-1/2 games over the Giants in the Wild Card race.

The strength of this team is their depth, which was on full display during the four game set against the Reds.

With starters Troy Tulowitzki and Ian Stewart down with back strains, the backups have filled in quite nicely. Eric Young Jr. stepped in to play second base as Clint Barmes slid over to play shortstop. EY Jr. has done nothing but go 11-for-33 in his first weeks as a big leaguer. While his defense at second base has been said to be weak, he has done nothing but field every ball hit his way perfectly.

After the loss of Aaron Cook to injury Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd went out and got Jose Contreras from the White Sox. After a great outing on Saturday verses the Diamondbacks, Contreras flailed in his three innings of work on Thursday before exiting after tweaking a quad muscle running to first base in the bottom of the third inning.

Instead of panicking and watching the bullpen blow up after having to enter the game in the fourth inning, the Rockies methodically marched Jhoulys Chacin to the mound for one inning, then Juan Rincon for three innings and finished with Matt Belisle. Both Rincon and Belisle have struggled for the Rockies in '09, but were nearly flawless in their effort on Thursday, combining to give up just three hits and strike out seven in their five innings of work.

The Rockies are winning games due to their depth, even if that is not necessarily showing up in the box score.

On Wednesday night fifth starter Jason Hammel pitched into the eighth inning. He was nearly flawless on a night when the Rockies were struggling to get the bats going against Reds starter Bronson Arroyo. Hammel had a one-hitter through seven innings. He gave up back-to-back doubles in the eighth, allowing the Reds to tie the score before being removed.

Hammel's name does not appear in the win column for the game on Wednesday night, but if there was a single reason the Rockies were in the position that they were in, it was due to Hammel, a fifth starter who has struggled at Coors Field.

Another example of the Rockies depth is in their bullpen.

Huston Street went down last week with biceps tendinitis. For most teams to lose their starter would be a sign of a team falling apart. Instead, this Rockies team simply inserted Franklin Morales into the closer's role and watched him save games. Morales did not miss a beat, all five saves came in tight situations where the Rockies had very little breathing room.

Perhaps the greatest example of the Rockies depth has been the addition of Jason Giambi.

While Giambi himself has made considerable contributions to the Rockies, his biggest impact has simply been his presense.

With Giambi on the bench, manager Jim Tracy can feel comfortable putting Seth Smith in the starting lineup. Before Giambi's arrival, Smith was the best option that the Rockies had off of the bench in the late innings. If he was in the starting lineup, Tracy lost the opportunity to insert him when he was needed most.

With Smith in the lineup everyday he has gone on a tear, winning the National League Player of the Week award. In September Smith has hit .447 going 17-for-38. In those games he has homered four times, hit six doubles and driven in 14 runs, including the tying and winning run on Wednesday night in the ninth inning.

While they are just now getting some national exposure, this Rockies team is showing that they do not have a true weakness. Their starting rotation is solid, their bullpen is very good and their lineup matches up well with any other teams. With the Giants playing the Dodgers this weekend, the Rockies are guaranteed a chance to gain ground in one of the races that they are in.

Rockies Walk Off With Another Victory

Is it still drama when the outcome becomes the expected?

The Colorado Rockies once again walked off with a victory when it looked like they had been beaten. On Wednesday night the victim was the Cincinnati Reds, a team who stormed into Coors Field winners of their last seven ball games, now they are hoping to salvage the day game on Thursday in order to avoid being swept.

On Wednesday night the hero was Seth Smith, but he was really only the ninth inning hero.

The real hero was unheralded number five starter Jason Hammel.

Hammel pitched brilliantly, meticulously carving his way through the Reds lineup. He was pitching with a pace that seemed to put the Rockies defense back in the dugout just moments after they had stepped onto the field. After giving up a first inning double to Paul Janish, Hammel held the Reds hitless until the eighth inning.

He gave up back-to-back doubles to start the eighth, which led to his departure after 98 pitches. Unfortunately for Hammel, Rafael Betancourt gave up the third double in a row, tying the game and eliminating Hammel from factoring in the decision.

Despite picking up the no decision, Hammel won the confidence of the clubhouse and the fans with his performance. Known for his struggles at Coors Field, Hammel rose to the occasion, outpitching Bronson Arroyo and doing exactly what his job as a fifth starter is, to keep his team in the ball game. In all Hammel threw 7-1/3 innings, giving up three hits, all doubles, while striking out a season-high eight and walking just one batter. Hammel got 11 outs via the ground ball to only three fly ball outs.

After Hammel’s departure the Rockies picked up right where they left off, finding a way to scratch out a big win.

The Giants had lost earlier in the day to the Padres so a win would extend the Rockies Wild Card lead to four games, a lead puts San Francisco in a spot where they are going to really play well down the stretch to catch the Rockies, especially considering how hot the Rockies have been.

After a Scott Rolen bullet home run to left field, giving the Reds a 3-2 lead, the Rockies sent the bottom third of their lineup to the plate to face Reds closer Francisco Cordero. Cordero proved to be too much for Yorvit Torrealba, ending his 16 game hitting streak, but then with two strikes, Clint Barmes lined a ball down the left field line for a double.

With Jason Giambi pinch hitting in the pitcher’s spot, Cordero clearly wanted nothing to do with giving up a walk off blast to the lefty with more than 6oo career home runs. He walked him on four pitches, sending to the plate pinch hitter Ryan Spilborghs, who proceeded to walk on four pitches. Carlos Gonzalez, one of the Rockies hottest hitters over the last month strolled to the plate knowing that with one out, a sacrifice fly would tie the game.

Gonzalez could not get the ball in play, however, striking out and leaving the game up to Smith. After fouling off four fastballs, Smith hit a hard grounder up the middle that gold glover Brandon Phillips could not handle. If Phillips at least gloved the ball, the Rockies would have only scored one run, but since the ball trickled away, it allowed Jason Marquis, pinch running for Giambi, to score from second base.

The game was another classic example of how this Rockies team is not the type of team that sits back and waits for its hero to deliver. Each member of this team seems to have made a special play at some point in the season that secured a victory for the club.

On Wednesday night, with a four-game lead over San Francisco on the line with a win, Jason Hammel stepped to the mound and kept the Rockies in the game long enough for the offense to take control of the game and win it. His effort put the Rockies in a place where instead of watching the scoreboard every night, they can now focus on winning as many games as they possibly can.

Every win makes it that much more difficult for the Giants to crawl back into the race. If the Rockies were simply to play .500 baseball over the final 24 games, the Giants would need to go 16-8 over their final 24 games, which would only tie them for the wild card lead.

The Rockies can simply focus on picking up as many wins as they possibly can down the stretch and finishing off the Giants.