On Thursday night the Rockies continued the trend, looking lethargic in Pittsburgh and dropping the first game of a very important seven game road trip 5-1.
The Rockies continued another trend, making a below-average starting pitcher look like he is bound for Cooperstown. This time it was James McDonald, newly acquired from the Dodgers, or more appropriately, Triple-A Albuquerque. The right hander mixed in a changeup, a pitch the Rockies had not previously seen from him, and they could not adjust. The fifth-starter/long bullpen man shutout the Rockies for six innings, not allowing a runner past second base.
For Colorado, Jeff Francis struggled early, giving up a solo home run to newly-crowned Rockie killer Garrett Jones and then a two-run homer to Ronnie Cedeno to give the Pirates an early three run lead. To be fair to Francis, Cedeno hit the home run immediately followed a misplayed foul ball that should have gotten Francis out of the inning.
The foul, hit down the left field line, saw Ian Stewart, Troy Tulowitzki and Seth Smith converge on the ball. Whether he got a bad read or was simply not hustling, Smith arrived just in time for Tulowitzki to hear his footsteps and not make a play on the ball. It was not an easy play, but someone needed to make it.
Some in the media suggest that if the Rockies wanted to make the playoffs, they should have made a move at the trade deadline. However, personnel is not the problem for the Rockies.
The problem for this club is between the ears.
At home, the Rockies do not view a three run deficit as a problem. It seems more often than not when they are down by three runs early in the game, they simply find a way to get runners on and get them across the plate. On the road, however, if the opposition scores even a single run before the Rockies, the team's attitude crumbles. A 3-0 lead for the opposition on the road may as well be a 12-0 lead. The Rockies start playing as if they are getting blown out of the water and they just go through the motions.
There is no spark and no life to the Rockies when they are on the road. Something makes them play as if they didn't sleep well the night before.
Whatever the reason, the fact is, a team that plays in October beats teams that they are better than, whether home or on the road.
If the Rockies want to play in October, they cannot afford to blow a four-game series against a terrible Pirate team. They cannot let a pitcher who has a career ERA over 8.00 in games in which he starts look like Pedro Martinez in his prime. Instead of trying to do too much at the plate, the club needs to figure out their approach and stick with it. They need to know that they have the talent necessary to force the pitcher to throw a good pitch instead of swinging early and often.
Simply put, the Rockies need to win five games on this road trip. That means that they need to win five out of the next six games. They have to find a way to beat teams that are no longer in the race. They cannot afford to play .500 baseball on the road against bad teams. The loss on Thursday night makes winning five games on this road trip a tall order. It means winning the next three against the Pirates and winning the series against the Mets.
That may seem like a tough task, but that is the situation that the Rockies have put themselves in. They played right around .500 baseball all through April and May, which was good enough to keep them within striking distance. However, it also removed the slack of being able to lose winnable games later in the season.
This road trip will define whether or not the Rockies are actual contenders or if they are never going to reach their full potential and have a long offseason to think about what went wrong.
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