Wednesday, July 1, 2009

7/1/09 - COL 0, @ LA 1 - "Relief Rant"

OK, here’s the deal: forget about our bats apparently missing the team charter from Oakland and being shipped back to Denver four days early. The real issue with our team, and the glaring difference between the Rockies and the division-leading Dodgers, lies in the relief corps.

Examine the Dodger bullpen. Jon Broxton is awesome and would be on my Cy Young ballot if the season ended today. I don’t know how anybody has ever gotten a hit against him. Nobody had ever heard of Ronald Belisario before the season, and he throws a bowling-ball sinker in the mid-90s. Ramon Troncoso was similarly anonymous, and is similarly filthy. Brent Leach is a homegrown lefty who can get lefties out. James McDonald is a homegrown starting pitching prospect with a swing-and-miss changeup. Guillermo Mota sucks, but at least he still throws 95 with a good slider.
That’s a good bullpen. It’s a bullpen full of young power arms, guys that the Dodgers aren’t afraid to throw into high-leverage situation just because there aren’t many lines on the backs of their baseball cards.

The Rockies are terrified to do this, and have been ever since they went with a young bullpen to start the 2005 season and Scott Dohmann and Chin-Hui Tsao gave up like 20 home runs in the first week of the season. Which is why you end up with a bunch of famous people in the bullpen. Famous people like Alan Embree, who was a part of championship-caliber teams in Boston and New York fairly recently but now is the rare lefty who can’t get a lefty out. Famous people like Juan Rincon, a valued part of Minnesota’s bullpen earlier this decade whose arsenal consists of a little slider and a whole lot of prayer. Famous people like Randy Flores, who has a ring with St. Louis and also can’t get lefties out, which creates an interesting matchup dilemma when the Rockies are facing a lefty thumper in the late innings and can’t go get a lefty that they know will lock him down.

Yeah, I know, Taylor Buchholz is out for the year and help is on the way in Manny Corpas, and if Casey Weathers hadn’t needed Tommy John surgery he’d probably be in the mix too, but there’s just nothing to suggest that the current bullpen is capable of long term success. Huston Street has been All-Star caliber, Josh Fogg’s a pretty inoffensive long-relief option, and Joel Peralta is pitching above and beyond any reasonable expectation, but of the currently healthy members of the bullpen, those are the guys who are even remotely trustworthy… and that’s as of today. Would you bet on Fogg and Peralta continuing to keep their ERAs below 3? Below 4?

Buster Olney quoted a talent evaluator from the American League who said that the Rox are two middle relievers away from being the best team in the National League. The talent evaluator apparently hasn’t seen the Dodgers play, but if the Rockies can be second best in the West, they’ll be squarely in playoff consideration this season. I can dig it. And the notion that the Rockies need bullpen help is absolutely true. But bullpen help isn’t going to come in the form of Juan Rincon. It’s not even necessarily going to arrive in Corpas, who was pitching better before his injury but still doesn’t belong anywhere near a tight game late.

It’s time for the Rockies to gamble on some power arms within the system. Once AA starter Sam Deduno is fully healthy and back in the swing, he should be in Denver. Same goes for Franklin Morales, whose velocity could play up in shorter stints and who could actually give the Rox an advantage against a lefty hitter late. I know the reluctance to use guys who ‘haven’t done it at the big league level before’ is there, but Joe Torre doesn’t seem to care and his team is running away with the West.

The Rox left LA with only one win. I hope they leave with a lesson about the value of power arms in relief, even ones you never would have thought to utilize.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

6/28/09 - COL 3, @ OAK 1 - "Doin' Real Good"

Today, my landlord swung by my apartment to make a quick fix of a plumbing problem. It’s roughly the 15th plumbing problem I’ve had in 11 months of occupation, but the worst of them haven’t surfaced from some time now. Today, a screw had slipped behind my cold water handle in my shower, and it took Jim probably about 15 seconds to put it back in its proper place. Jim’s a good guy, a construction worker who knows his way around these old apartments. We’ve had casual conversations that didn’t involve what was broken in my bathroom before, but nothing substantial beyond a word or two about a football game I was watching.

On his way out, Jim saw I was watching the Rockies highlights on Baseball Tonight, and said, “I hear the Rockies are doin’ real good.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “They’re on fire.”

“Yeah, I was watchin ‘em the other night, which I don’t normally do,” Jim said in his well-worn Western accent. “They were on TV and I heard the announcers talkin’ about all the games they were winning.”

I started to confirm that information. “Yup. Twenty out of…”

Before I could say “twenty-three” Jim cut me off. “I didn’t realize it because I kinda thought they sucked.”

We chatted for a minute or so more about the hot Rox before he headed out. I felt good when he left, and not only because I can take a warm shower tomorrow. I felt good knowing that the most casual baseball observer, even 500 miles away from Coors Field, has taken notice of the Rox. They kinda sucked, but now they’re doin’ real good. Sometimes that’s all you really need to know.


It’s time for the first ‘big’ series of the season. Three games on the road with the Dodgers. The Rox are 7.5 back in the West, trailing San Francisco by half a game for second place. The Rockies will send their 2-3-4 starters to the mound (Jimenez, Marquis, Hammel) against LA’s 5-1-2 (Wolf, Billingsley, Kershaw). A Rockies series win means they’re a for-real contender. A Dodgers series win means the Rox still have a ways to go. A Dodgers sweep reasserts their dominance in the West. A Rockies sweep means we’ve got a brand new pennant race.

This is going to be a fun three days of baseball.

Friday, June 26, 2009

6/26/09 - COL 4, @ OAK 2 - "Missing Matt"

It was fitting that Matt Holliday’s first at bat as an opponent of the Colorado Rockies produced a quintessentially Matt Holliday-like result – a double to the opposite field gap. That was always what impressed me most about Holliday during his years in Denver – his ability, almost unmatched, to drive the ball the other way. I feel like every time I saw him hit a homer in person, it was a bullet that wound up in the Rockies bullpen in right-center field.

That was about the only thing fitting about seeing Matt face his former team. Even if the impact of his loss from a baseball standpoint has been greatly diminished, both by Holliday’s own struggles (he came into today hitting .269 with 8 homers) and the Rockies outfield depth, it’s hard to understate just how difficult it was to watch him today. Yeah, I’d seen him in an A’s uniform on TV before, but to see him competing against guys he competed with last year just didn’t seem right.

Baseball is a brutal, unsentimental game, though, and you’ve gotta roll with it, and gotta figure out how you can possibly encourage anybody to strike out the guy who scored the biggest run in Rockies history, or curse the guy who should have won an MVP in a Rockies uniform for ripping a double into the gap. As I’m writing this, Holliday is about to step to the plate as the tying run in the 8th inning of a three-run ballgame, and I would bet my life he hits one 450 feet to dead center. To spite us, and to remind us.

That, or he’ll roll over on the first pitch to second base. That was pretty quintessentially Matt Holliday-like, too.

(See? Brutal, and unsentimental.)

(He walked. Now watch the Rox lose this one at someone else’s hand, meaning we won’t be able to even secretly feel happy for one of the all-time franchise greats.)

(Oh, God bless you, Joel Peralta. My favorite thing about you is the complete lack of faith I have in you, and then the pleasant surprise I feel when you actually come through.)

(I’m never blogging during the game again. Isn’t this what Twitter is for?)

(Huston Street comes out of the bullpen at Coors Field to ‘Hate Me Now’ by P. Diddy and Nas. The color barrier for closer entrance music has been broken! Inspired choice, too, and it was almost the best use of hip-hop in Rockies player entrance history until Ian Stewart went to ‘Turn My Swag On’ by Soulja Boy.)

(Street shakes off a liner to the ribs and gets a 1-2-3 save. Damn, he’s good. Stay hot, Rox.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

6/22/09 - COL 11, @ LAA 1 - "A Milestone for Cookie"

Aaron Cook is now the winningest pitcher in Rockies franchise history, and it seems extra appropriate considering he’s exactly the type of pitcher that everybody said the Rockies had to develop if they wanted to build a pitching staff from within. The idea was that a pitcher who threw hard with a heavy sinkerball could keep the ball in the playing field at 20th and Blake and keep his ERA in the mid-fours at home.

The trouble was that prior to Cook, the Rockies hadn’t had that guy or even come close to developing that guy. And, of course, their misguided effort to find pitchers who could sink the baseball led to the Mike Hampton disaster. But even from the start of his big league career, Cook always had the bowling-ball sinker, and even though he’d gotten hit hard early on in his time with the Rockies, it really seemed like he was starting to put things all together before he had to leave a start against Cincinnati early on August 7, 2004.

It was no ordinary injury – Cook damn near died on the mound that day as blood clots attacked his lungs. It took him nearly a year to return to a big league mound, but once he did he picked up exactly as he left off, emerging down the stretch of a miserable 2005 season as the most reliable starter the Rockies had. You know the story from there – Cook ate innings and won ballgames the next couple of years, got a contract extension after 2007, and made an All-Star appearance last year once given officially the ‘ace’ mantle.

Ubaldo Jimenez is more electric, but if I had to pick either Cookie or U-Ball to start one game with the planet’s existence at stake, I’d take the redhead. He attacks hitters relentlessly, daring them to hack at his diving sinker because it’s damn hard to do anything but pound it at an infielder. He has thrown complete games of 74 and 79 pitches in his career, both of which came at Coors Field. He has survived at one of the toughest hitters parks of all time despite a career strikeout rate of 3.7 per nine. He is a perfect gentleman four days of the week before becoming the prototypical bulldog on his day on the mound. He takes the ball and gives the Rockies one hell of a chance to win, every single time, and has done so for the last four seasons.

They don’t make many pitchers like Aaron Cook – guys who can succeed without a swing and miss pitch because the swing and hit pitch in their arsenal splinters quality lumber like a Stihl chainsaw. But even though he might have more renown were he in the midst of what should be a rather lengthy prime in a larger market, Aaron Cook belongs in a Rockies uniform, the perfect pitcher with the perfect pitch for a largely imperfect set of circumstances. And nobody deserves to be the winningest pitcher in franchise history more than him.

Friday, June 19, 2009

6/19/09 - COL 7, PIT 3 - "Confidence"

Back in 2007, 14 out of 15 was where it ended, when Matt Holliday dove across home plate and Coors Field erupted with its loudest roar ever as the Rockies closed out their regular season with a win in Game 163.

In 2009, 14 out of 15 feels like just the beginning. I’ve now officially reached the point where I turn on the Rockies game expecting them to win, and win handily. I expect the starters to pitch deep into the game, the offense to get a lead early and pad it late, and the handshake line to form afterwards.

Any hyperbole I’d want to apply to this hot streak was used up for good during Rocktober 2007, so I have none left for descriptive purposes. But the thing is that I’m not sure any hyperbole is necessary. 2007 was like watching a Disney movie unfold. 2009 is a different feeling. This feels more like a talented team that finally has all its ducks in a row and is starting to play the kind of kick-ass baseball we thought they were capable of from the beginning. To paraphrase Dennis Green, the Rockies are who we thought they were, and I’m comfortable crowning their asses as playoff contenders.

The part I’m having the most fun watching is the pitching. That’s the part of the game that’s nearest to my heart, the part I think I understand the best and therefore appreciate the most. And I can’t remember a Rockies starting rotation ever pitching as well as this current one has. Jim Tracy has shown a tremendous amount of confidence in his starters, and they have repaid him by working deep into games.
Ubaldo Jimenez’s last two starts, and Jason Marquis’ start tonight, have featured some high pitch counts. There’s always some wringing of the hands when pitch counts run into the 120s, like Jimenez against Seattle last Friday and Marquis tonight, and
I’ll admit to not being totally comfortable with it myself, but frankly, I like the fact that Tracy’s going to go with his guys until they lose effectiveness and grow tired, not until some pre-determined pitch count says they need to come out. I think it gives the pitchers more confidence and more toughness, physically and mentally. One thing’s for sure, the rotation members look like a different bunch, from Jimenez (throwing more strikes) to Jason Hammel (throwing the changeup more) to Marquis (throwing a heavier sinker). Add them to the rock-steady Aaron Cook and the epitome of fifth starter-hood, Jorge de la Rosa… and you’ve got a staff where you never feel like you don’t have a chance to win a game at the very start, and that has to be a confidence boost in turn to the lineup, as they don’t feel like they have to score 8 runs every night out.

The pitchers are also gaining confidence from the defense, which is as good as it’s been since 2007 thanks to Ian Stewart taking over at third and Carlos Gonzalez taking starts in left. The defense is gaining confidence from the pitchers, who are throwing more strikes and keeping them more involved. It all adds up, and snowballs, and just keeps rolling on towards .500 and beyond.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

6/14/09 - COL 7, SEA 1 - "Eleven"


“Oh, they’ll probably lose tonight. Washburn’s the kind of lefty that always gives us trouble.”

“Jimenez doesn’t have it tonight.”


“What is Tracy thinking, sending Ubaldo back to the mound with 104 pitches in the 8th? Doesn’t he trust his bullpen?”

“I mean, he’s gotta go get him now – U-Ball’s completely out of gas.”

Final score: Rockies 6, Mariners 4.


“We scratched some off Washburn, but Bedard will shackle us for sure… what’s that? He’s not?”

“We can’t get a hit with a runner in scoring position. This has one-run loss written all over it.”

“@!#%$#@ Corpas.”

“Oh, geez, Street looks gassed, I don’t know if he can get out of this.”

Final score: Rockies 5, Mariners 3.


“We’re going to win.”

Final score: Rockies 7, Mariners 1.


If there’s a lesson here beyond “I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about,” it’s that winning streaks aren’t to be fretted over or overanalyzed. You just have to enjoy the ride while it lasts, and embrace the idea that your team is shaking hands after the final out every single time they take the field.

The last time the Rockies won this many games in a row… well, you know when it was and what it meant. This one’s different for a lot of reasons, but it feels every bit as good because it’s a validation of how good we think this team should be.

The off day Monday gives us a chance to reset. Lay back, and not think about the seeming impossibility of the streak or the desultory 20-32 start that preceded it. When the Rockies take the field on Tuesday, they’ll be 31-32, and how they got there doesn’t matter as much as where they go from here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

6/11/09 - COL 5, @ MIL 4 - "Eight"

As much as I enjoy listening to baseball on the radio, I have a tough time listening to the late innings of a close game while I’m driving. Thankfully, I wasn’t in my car during today’s seventh inning, when for the second time in two days, Joel Peralta nearly caused me to have a stroke.

With the bases loaded, two outs, and a two-run lead in the seventh, I waited for the inevitable bases-clearing double from Ryan Braun. I swore at Peralta when he fell behind in the count. If there’s one thing I know about the 2009 Rockies, it’s that eventually things are going to turn for the worse.

Except that over the past eight days, what I thought I knew about this team has gone almost completely out the window. The Rockies never won one-run games – they do now. The Rockies never came back to win games – they do now. The Rockies didn’t get the big hit or make the big pitch… they do now, and did today when Peralta blew a 91-mph fastball down and in past Braun to end the inning.

The best way I can describe the Rox right now? It’s like they were a beat up old car that had been through some bad weather, some mud and dirt… and then it went through a car wash and came out the other side looking shiny and new. There’s a newness to the team, almost like they’ve been able to push a RESET button on the entire season and start playing the kind of baseball they – and we – all thought they were capable of playing when they broke camp in April.

You get the sense that nobody’s concerned with the 28-32 record, or how far back they are in the West and Wild Card standings, or any of the rumors about players getting traded. They’re just showing up and playing ball, and it’s been a winning brand of ball.

It’s not as simple as just playing better. There’s a different attitude and a different confidence level that’s evident just watching the team on a daily basis. There’s a killer instinct late in games that hasn’t been there since… well, Rocktober. Which, not coincidentally, was the last time it’s been this good to be a Rockies fan.