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May 20, 2009
On the Beat
It was just two seasons ago that the Rockies made their mad dash to the World Series. They won 13 of their last 14 regular-season games, and then beat the Padres in a one-game playoff for the wild card before sweeping the Phillies in the National League Division Series and the Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series.
Though the Rockies were swept by the Red Sox in their first-ever Fall Classic, the future looked bright. The Rockies had a young nucleus of players that seemed ready to lead the franchise to more October dances. That nucleus is still in place, though it isn't quite so young anymore, and the Rockies' next post-season appearance seems light years away. The Rockies are 15-23 and tied with the Diamondbacks for last place in the NL West, 11½ games behind the Dodgers.
That has led to plenty of frustration and speculation surrounding the team, speculation that centers on the future of general manager Dan O'Dowd and skipper Clint Hurdle. O'Dowd has been on the job for 11 years, and it has been seven years since Hurdle was promoted from hitting coach to replace the fired Buddy Bell. Owner Charles Monfort, however, has said that he has no plans to make any changes, and those close to the situation also believe that O'Dowd and Hurdle are safe. What could come, though, is the breakup of a club that hasn't become any better since 2007. The Rockies slipped to 74-88 last season, and they're off to their regular bad start this year.
Right-handers Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez, reliever Manuel Corpas, catcher Yorvit Torrealba, first baseman Todd Helton, third baseman Garrett Atkins, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and right fielder Brad Hawpe all remain from that magical '07 team. If the Rockies can't turn their season around, it would not be a surprise to see some of those players dealt at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
The Rockies have actually outscored their opponents; they're averaging 5.1 runs a game (12th in the majors), and giving up 5.0 (18th), but calling Denver home inflates these figures; their .253 team Equivalent Average is just 12th in the NL. They're 3.8 wins under their Pythagenport record, more than any club in baseball. The run differential provides some hope that things will begin to even out for the Rockies, and that's what is Hurdle is preaching to his team as they try to avoid being blown out of contention by Memorial Day. "This game is all about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and moving forward," said Hurdle. "We've gotten knocked down in the early part of this season. The critical part is for us to get back up. We have to find a way to get moving. It's critical that we do that. I believe we have the people in this clubhouse who can do that."
In many ways, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki became the clubhouse leader during his rookie season in 2007, when he posted a .272 EqA. Though that number slid to .244 last season and has bounced back somewhat to .261 this year, he is considered the primary spokesman among the players; Helton, the respected veteran, is more of the quiet type. Tulowitzki cannot help but think back to the Rockies' magical run of 2007. "I think what's happened is we've lost our swagger somewhere along the way," said Tulowitzki. "I'm not saying we're going to go out and win 22 of 23 games again or anything like that, but we believed in ourselves. We thought we were going to win every day. We never thought we were out of a game. It's different now. We have the guys who want to win, but I don't know if we have that same confidence."
Offense is rarely a problem for the Rockies; runs are still plentiful in the high altitude of Denver, even if the Coors Field humidor has somewhat cut into the high scores in recent years. Hawpe leads the way with a .329 EqA, and Helton is having a bit of a bounce-back season at .301 following last year's back surgery.
The 18th-place ranking in runs allowed is about as good as it gets for the Rockies, whose history of poor pitching since joining the major leagues as an expansion franchise in 1993 has been well-documented. Ubaldo Jimenez (1.3 SNLVAR) and Jorge De La Rosa (1.2) are long on stuff and are now turning that into production, though the bullpen does not have a reliever who ranks among the top 100 in the majors in WXRL.
Tulowitzki believes that the Rockies' pitching would be better with some help in the field; the Rockies are 26th in defensive efficiency at .673. "In 2007 we made all the plays, and we're not doing that now," Tulowitzki said. "Our defense is a big downfall. We're not catching the ball like we used to. You have to do the little things like that if you're going to be a winning team, and we've gotten away from that."
The process of the lineup card making its way from the manager to the umpires in the moments leading up to the start of a game is more complex than just the skipper handing it over to the men in blue. The manager determines his batting order hours before the game begins. Then the bench coach fills out the lineup cards, either by hand or on a computer, one copy of which is posted on a wall in the clubhouse and is then transported to the dugout as it gets closer to game time. The other copy, signed by the manager, then goes to the umpires.
When the Rays listed two third basemen and no designated hitter on their lineup card on Sunday, forcing pitcher Andy Sonnanstine to bat third, manager Joe Maddon did not point any fingers. The Rays do their lineup cards by computer, as quality assurance coach Todd Greene inputs the information and then prints them out. Bench coach Dave Martinez then checks the cards. "It was my mistake," Maddon said. "It was my fault. I screwed up. Nobody else did."
The Rays listed both Evan Longoria, the usual starter at the position, and utilityman Ben Zobrist as third basemen on their official lineup card on a day when Longoria was supposed to serve as the DH. Indians manager Eric Wedge waited until Zobrist played third base in the top of the first inning, and then challenged the lineup card with umpiring crew chief Tim McClelland. The umpires ruled that the Rays were not allowed to use a DH in the game, which led to Sonnanstine batting. "My immediate thought was, 'Take your card out of your pocket,'" Maddon said when he saw Wedge talking with McClelland. "It said two '5's [third basemen], and I said, 'Oh, no.'"
Sonnanstine amazingly came through with an RBI double, and the Rays wound up winning the game. He was the first starting pitcher in an AL batting order since Ken Brett for the White Sox on September 23, 1976 against the Twins. "The players pretty much rallied around the situation," Maddon said. "Everyone was supportive, almost to the point where it was getting syrupy and disgusting."
Former Diamondbacks pitching coach Bryan Price certainly wasn't a fan of general manager Josh Byrnes' decision to fire his manager, Bob Melvin, earlier this month, and replacing him with player development director A.J. Hinch. Price resigned rather than remain on the staff, and it had as much to do with his belief that Hinch is not qualified to be a manager as it did with his loyalty to Melvin. "To me, it was not only a slap in the face to Bob, but to Chip and Gibby," Price told the Marin Independent Journal, referring to D'back coaches Chip Hale and Kirk Gibson, "and to anybody who has actually managed or coached in the past. [Hinch] doesn't have any credibility between the lines as a manager. I thought it bypassed people who were better prepared to finish out the season."
Hinch said that he did not take Price's criticism personally, but more as being directed at the situation. "I have a lot of integrity," Hinch told the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro. "I have worked my tail off, on the field and certainly in my career, to get here. People are going to react how they want to react, and I can't control that."
Rangers manager Ron Washington was nearly fired early last season, and he seemed to be on the hot seat when this season began, but with his team leading the American League West by three games, the third-year skipper is beginning to win praise for the job that he's doing with a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2004 or been to the postseason in 10 years.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler told Jean-Jacques Taylor of the Dallas Morning News that a sign of Washington's evolution as a manager came two weeks ago following a loss to the White Sox. Washington entered a silent clubhouse and told the players to turn on the stereo and enjoy themselves. "It was a sign of his maturity as a manager," Kinsler said. "He'd never done that before. It shows he knows what's going on with our team, and he understands how we're going to respond."
Washington said that understanding and trust comes from years of experience; he had spent 10 seasons as a major league infielder and 11 years on the Athletics' coaching staff. "You have to be honest," Washington said. "You can't fool these guys. I'm genuine. I don't have to be fake. They know it. They don't have any bigger cheerleader than me. I've got their back in good times and bad times. I know what it feels like to struggle and you know you're better than your numbers."
Scouts' views on various major league players:
Three series to watch this weekend as interleague play begins, with probable pitching matchups: