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May 17, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

We Did Everything We Needed to Do, and Then We Didn't

by Geoff Young

The once unstoppable Rockies have slowed to a near standstill. They are 3-10 so far in May and have relinquished their NL West lead.

Among other issues, Colorado has stopped winning one-run games. After going 5-2 in such contests in April, the Rockies are 1-5 in May.

The pitching, which was strong early on, has yielded ground this month. Ubaldo Jimenez continues to struggle with his command, and now he is rubbing off on Jorge de la Rosa.

Meanwhile, the bullpen–other than Matt Lindstrom–has been shaky in May. Of particular note is closer Huston Street, against whom opponents are hitting .389/.389/.944. Street has allowed three home runs in 19 plate appearances this month.

The low point came on Saturday, when Street surrendered a two-run blast to former teammate Brad Hawpe with two strikes and two out in the ninth inning of a 7-7 tie. The Rockies led 7-1 after six innings but ended up losing, 9-7.

Manager Jim Tracy, channeling his inner Yogi Berra, said of the game: “We did everything we needed to do leading into the seventh inning and then we didn't do what we needed to do.”

Even before the series against the Padres, Colorado had been scuffling. The Rockies were swept by the Giants in San Francisco and dropped two out of three at home to the much-maligned Mets.

Two of the games at AT&T Park were, like Saturday's affair, defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. As noted above, this has been a recurring theme:

Rockies May 2011 Late-Inning Woes

Inning

RS

RA

7th

6

13

8th

3

5

9th

0

10

Extras

0

1

The three runs scored in the eighth all came in Friday's 12-7 victory over the Padres. Those ninth inning numbers are downright ugly.

The Rockies' poor end game showing isn't strictly a May phenomenon. They've been outscored, 14-1, in the ninth so far in 2011. Extend that to extra innings, and the deficit becomes 17-1.

* * *

Frank McCourt and Bud Selig continue to dominate the news in Los Angeles. It's all very complicated, distasteful, and far from being settled. Unfortunately, as John Perotto observes, the Dodgers' problems aren't limited to off-field shenanigans.

The latest issue concerns lefty reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who has landed on the disabled list due to anxiety disorder. Even his manager, Don Mattingly, seems perplexed: “It's heartbreaking, but I just don't know where it goes from here. At this point, it's a medical decision.”

The Orange County Register's Landon Hall spoke with a clinical psychologist, who said that, “With an anxiety disorder there's avoidance, the problem that's precipitating the catastrophic thoughts. In its extreme form it’ll become a phobic reaction."

In recent years, former Padres shortstop Khalil Greene experienced an anxiety disorder that apparently has forced him from the game. Other famous examples of men who suddenly lost the ability to do what they once did so well include Rick Ankiel, Chuck Knoblauch, and of course Steve Blass, whose name has been forever linked to the phenomenon.

The exact nature of Kuo's disorder has not been disclosed (and frankly, it isn't our business), but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, twelve-month prevalence of anxiety disorder among the U.S. population is 18.1 percent. What Kuo is experiencing isn't unusual, although the fact that he is a public figure working in an arena that lauds toughness and a certain level of self-denial may make it seem so.

It is difficult to imagine what Kuo must be going through right now. One would expect that the attention being cast on this young man as a result of his condition can't be helping matters. If he is already anxious, how will awareness that others know about his condition aid him?

Fortunately, the stigma of mental illness isn't what it once was. And maybe the cases of Greene, Ankiel, Knoblauch, and Blass (among others) have helped raise awareness regarding such issues.

Kuo's situation is such that, perhaps recalling Greene's early departure from the game, we are seeing preemptive denials of imminent retirement. It would be irresponsible to speculate on the veracity of such denials, but this is strange territory.

Perhaps it is just as well that McCourt and Selig are doing their little dance, which with each passing day becomes a larger and more convoluted dance. Maybe they can run interference for Kuo while he attempts to overcome what ails him. It would be nice if some good came from their nonsense.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Giants have taken advantage of Colorado's stumbling ways, winning nine of their last 11 games and assuming the division's top spot. As we would expect, they have done it with pitching. After throwing one shutout in the season's first 29 games, Giants hurlers have spun four in the last 10.

Two came in starts by Ryan Vogelsong, who continues to be one of the most unlikely success stories in the early part of 2011. Of course, in San Francisco, shutouts aren't a luxury so much as a necessity. The Giants are hitting .236/.302/.365 as a team and scoring 3.46 runs per game. Only the Minnesota Twins (3.13) boast a more anemic offense.

The worst of the worst is Miguel Tejada, whose 1.28 RC/27 ranks last among 192 qualifiers in MLB. Tejada, who shifted to third base a while back to replace the injured Pablo Sandoval, played two games at shortstop this week and committed two errors there.

As we recently noted in this space, the Giants pitching staff can make up for a lot, but Tejada is pushing the envelope hard. That said, teams probably should be concerned that San Francisco leads the division just shy of the season's quarter mark despite a complete absence of hitting. Having the world's best one-run record (12-3) doubtless helps.

* * *

Speaking of close games, Arizona has been the “close but not close enough” team of late. Of the 13 games the Diamondbacks have played this month, 10 were decided by one run. They lost five straight from May 8 to May 13, by a combined score of 16-11.

The Snakes snapped their skid with a 1-0 win over the Dodgers. Close? The run came courtesy of an error by opposing pitcher Chad Billingsley, who allowed one hit on the evening (this marked the first time since 1914 the Dodgers had lost on a one-hitter).

One problem with the Diamondbacks–and they aren't alone in this–is that they haven't gotten good hitting and good pitching at the same time. As noted in our April roundup, the Snakes scored a lot of runs in the season's first month... but they also gave up a lot.

May has been a different story. Arizona has been stingy on both fronts, with a 2.48 ERA that paces MLB and a .209/.289/.329 line that puts the Diamondbacks near the bottom on offense.

* * *

The Padres are a mirror image of the Diamondbacks. While San Diego received great pitching and no hitting in April, the reverse has been true in May. In half as many games, the Padres have scored more runs through the first half of this month than they did last month and are tied (with the Tigers) for the MLB lead in May.

April Sours Bring May Power?

Month

G

R

R/G

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

April

26

72

2.77

.211

.293

.308

14

May

13

74

5.69

.282

.342

.424

13

Leading the charge are fourth outfielder Chris Denorfia (.455/.500/.615) and a resurgent Brad Hawpe (.385/.455/.615). Hawpe's recent heroics have quelled fan cries for Anthony Rizzo, allowing Rizzo to continue developing at the minor league level without distraction.

On the pitching side, the staff ERA has jumped to 4.19 in May (up from 3.03 in March and April). Almost all of that falls on the starting rotation, which isn't surprising considering how well the likes of Aaron Harang and Dustin Moseley were doing relative to career norms.

The bullpen continues to be baseball's best, sporting a collective 2.13 ERA. They also are the hardest working relief corps, having pitched 139 2/3 innings through 40 games. Just for fun:

 

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

BB

K

BA

OBP

SLG

2010 Padres bullpen

504

39

106

17

0

5

45

118

.210

.278

.274

1969 Jackie Hernandez

504

54

112

14

2

4

38

111

.222

.278

.282

You can get similar results by looking at 1972 Freddie Patek, 1974 Enzo Hernandez, 1976 Roger Metzger, or any of a handful of shortstops from that era.

The budget-conscious Padres assembled their bullpen without succumbing to the recent trend of signing middle relievers to long-term contracts. So instead of, say, Matt Guerrier, they employ his generic equivalent, Chad Qualls

Pitcher

G

IP

ERA

SIERA

$M/years

Matt Guerrier

19

20.1

3.54

4.08

12/3

Chad Qualls

21

23.0

2.35

3.52

1.5/1

The entire bullpen came together in a similar fashion. And although Heath Bell now earns enough money to be traded should the Padres fall out of the race, he was acquired on the cheap.

The current group consists of four guys picked up for players no longer in baseball (Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson for Bell, Khalil Greene for Luke Gregerson, Brian Sikorski for Mike Adams, Tony Clark for Evan Scribner), two inexpensive free agents (Ernesto Frieri, Qualls), and one draftee (Cory Luebke). I can think of worse cost control plans.

Related Content:  Brad Hawpe,  The Who,  First Month

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