Friday, May 31, 2013

Colorado Rockies waste vintage Todd Helton homer in loss to Dodgers

Todd Helton can still swing it--every now and then.
The Toby Keith song says it perfectly. "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once, as I ever was."

No truer words could be spoken about Todd Helton. The former slugger with Hall of Fame credentials has been a disappointment in what is assumed to be his capstone season. With a batting average hovering around the Mendoza line, Helton's spot in the everyday lineup has been questioned by some of his most ardent supporters.

In the 9th inning, Helton gave his fans another opportunity to remember what he used to do on such a regular basis. With a runner on and the Rockies down by two runs, Helton fouled off pitch after pitch from Dodgers closer Brandon League before launching a game-tying second deck blast. The home run tied him with Yogi Berra on the all-time home run list.

The comeback was something that has eluded the Rockies for the last week of baseball. However, one thing that hasn't eluded the Rockies all week rared it's ugly head once again. The Rockies were unable to corral the momentum and shut the door on their opponent.

In the top of the 10th inning, Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt quickly gave up two runs to the Dodgers, giving them the lead right back and quickly squelching the energy that Helton brought to the park. The Rockies went 1-2-3 in their half of the 10th and the Rockies chances were done as quickly as they arose.

The end result was another disappointment for the Rockies. The team that one week ago was tied for first place in the National League West suddenly looks more like the team that lost 98 games a year ago than a team that can contend for a playoff spot.

The Rockies had all of their struggles over the past week get them at some point throughout the night on Friday. In the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th innings. The only run that the Rockies plated in those innings came in the 8th when Wilin Rosario bounced into a run-scoring double play with the bases loaded and no one out. That isn't exactly the best case scenario.

From the looks of it, the Rockies are starting to press at the plate in run scoring situations. Rosario swung at the first pitch while grounding into his double play. With the bases loaded, the pressure is on the pitcher. Even with a guy like Clayton Kershaw on the mound, who may only give one good pitch to hit, a batter needs to work the count and force that pitcher to work hard to get an out. At that point, a sacrifice fly would have been just as beneficial, but cost the team one less out.

The evidence was there in the 1st inning of the Rockies pressing. Despite having an overall great night at the plate, Dexter Fowler lined into a double play with Eric Young on first base. The ball was hit hard, but it came when Fowler should have had the bat on his shoulder. Kershaw, uncharacteristically, had walked Young on four pitches, and had started Fowler off with two balls. Instead of forcing Kershaw to find the strike zone, potentially driving his pitch count up, Fowler let him off the hook by swinging at a pitch after six straight balls. That isn't good baseball. Troy Tulowitzki followed Fowler's at-bat with a first pitch ground out.

Two pitches removed from throwing six straight balls, Kershaw was out of the inning with just eight pitches thrown. That inning let the Dodgers lefty off the hook and allowed him to get things back on track. That isn't the formula for success against a Cy Young winner and a guy with better numbers through his first five seasons than Sandy Koufax had in the same time.

The Rockies have to get disciplined at the plate. Helton's 9th inning at-bat was a classic example of what can happen when a batter fouls pitches off until the pitcher gives him one that he can drive. Hitters like Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are free swingers. It has brought them success in their careers, so you take the good with the bad and accept who they are. However, the rest of the lineup needs to work counts better. They need to fight tough pitches off and not swing at balls. It is easier said than done, but it is something that good teams do well.

The 9th inning from Betancourt also has to raise questions about the closer's health. Since coming out of a game 10 days ago with a sore groin, Betancourt hasn't been the same. At the time of the injury, the disabled list wasn't ruled out. However, he remained on the roster and claimed to be healthy. He may be healthy, but he hasn't been the same pitcher since. His location and command of the strike zone simply isn't there. Those are two things that are the signature of Rafael Betancourt.

The reality is, the Rockies don't need Betancourt to try and pitch through an injury. They have other options, including Rex Brothers, who has closer stuff, who can hold down the fort until Betancourt is healthy.

Friday night may also prove to be a deciding factor in Jon Garland's time in a Rockies uniform. In a game against Kershaw, the opposing starting pitcher knows that he has very little room for error. Garland did his best to keep the Rockies in the game, but once again proved not to be up to the challenge and continued his trend of giving up big innings. In the 3rd inning he gave up three runs, then two more in the 4th, both of which were driven in by a two-run double from Kershaw. Once again, an opposing pitcher was able to do significant damage to Garland.

For the Rockies, tough decisions must be made soon if this team wants to contend. Garland hasn't been effective in six weeks. Top prospect, and the prized possession from the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, Drew Pomeranz sits in Triple-A waiting for his chance. At some point, the Rockies must find a spot for him. If Garland isn't giving the Rockies a chance at least half of the time he takes the mound, there is no reason for him to be on the team.

The loss reminds fans of the past. Todd Helton comes through with an amazing performance and the rest of the team can't do anything else to get the job done. It was a flashback to the majority of Helton's career.

For Helton, it may have been validation that he still has it. Maybe not as often as he once did, but every now and then, he can still get the job done.

The Rockies have played themselves out of the race in less than a week. Winning Saturday, when they face another former Cy Young winner in Zach Grienke, is imperative. At some point, the slide must stop before things spiral out of control.

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