Are the playoffs in the cards?

Last week was bad, but, let’s face it, it could have been worse.

A 2-4 road trip is never anything to write home about, but at least the Padres and Dodgers are good teams and exactly two members of our Opening Day rotation were pitching for the Rockies this week (and, of course, one of those two was Josh Fogg.)  We won two games with rookie starting pitchers on the mound — on the flipside, we lost two games with Jeff Francis on the mound.  There were quite a few negatives — the nine-run fifth inning against the Padres on Wednesday, Jorge Julio blowing saves on consecutive days, that ugly, ugly, ugly outing by Francis on Tuesday.

The positive was that even on the road, and even in two of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball, the offense showed up.  The team scored 26 runs in six games, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but given the context it should have been enough for a 3-3 or 4-2 road trip.

This week offers a great chance to make up for that trip and gain some ground in the division.  Yes, the Pirates and Nationals are coming to Coors Field this week!  First of all, we can be fairly certain that Rockies fans will outnumber the opposition’s fans in the stands this week.  The Pirates and Nationals are two teams that have the same kind of pitching issues as the Rockies, but without the offense.  Tonight’s starting pitching matchup is Matt Morris against Ubaldo Jimenez.  Morris has given up five runs in each of his three starts as a Pirate.  Tuesday’s matchup is Elmer Dessens vs. Tony Armas, the rare pitching matchup involving Elmer Dessens that favors Elmer Dessens.  Wednesday is Josh Fogg vs. Tom Gorzelanny.  Gorzelanny is the de facto ace of the Pirates staff, which really isn’t saying much, but an 11-7 record and a 3.48 ERA is nothing to laugh at.  On the other hand, this will be Tom’s first trip to Coors Field.  That leaves Thursday, which will match Franklin Morales against Paul Maholm.  After one start in the majors, Frankie may already be better than Maholm.  Maholm’s not terrible, but he’s not really that good, either.

And then there are the Nationals, who are actually worse than their 55-69 record (51-73 Pythag.)  In a really quick look-ahead, it should be Jeff Francis against Shawn Hill and his 2.43 ERA (are you kidding?) on Friday; Ubaldo vs. Tim Redding and his 2.88 ERA (again, are you kidding?) on Saturday; and Dessens vs. Joel Hanrahan and his 2.95 ERA (triple are you kidding — and who is Joel Hanrahan?) on Sunday.  The Nationals’ rotation may be better than I initially thought, or else they’re really not that good and RFK is just so pitcher-friendly that it’s making these guys look good.  I’m betting on the latter, and that these guys will get shelled at Coors.

So why is this a good week to make up ground?  Well, because the Pirates and Nationals are coming to town — and anything less than 5-2 will be a disappointment.  The division-leading Diamondbacks are at home as well, but they’ll be playing the Brewers and Cubs.  The Dodgers and Padres are both headed for the East Coast to play the Mets and the Phillies.  Yes, that’s right: while they’re playing the Mets (70-53) and Phillies (65-58), we’re playing the Pirates (52-70) and the Nationals (55-69).  This could be fun.

The 2008 Rotation is Set

Like the title says.

It turns out that the recent injuries to Aaron Cook, Jason Hirsh, and Rodrigo Lopez may have been a blessing in disguise.  The Diamondbacks are starting to run away with the division, and while the Rockies are only two games out in the wild card, with this team’s history even a healthy rotation might not have been enough.  But the injuries to starting pitchers have led the Rockies to have to search far and wide for available starters, when the answers were right under their nose the entire time.

Oh, sure, the rotation does need a couple of filler guys with those three out, but the sheer lack of available starting pitching has forced the Rockies to call up both Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales.  It’s probably no coincidence that the Rockies’ two wins on the current West Coast road swing came in games started by those two.

Franklin Morales didn’t come away with a win last night in his major league debut, but he certainly pitched well enough to get one.  In 5.1 innings of work, Frankie gave up just one run on five hits while striking out four.  Perhaps the most amazing part of his outing was that he didn’t walk a single batter.  Franklin’s control has been a problem throughout his minor league career, and it was perhaps the one thing holding him back from being a truly dominant starting pitcher.  In 2006 at Modesto, Franklin walked 89 batters in 154 innings of work and threw 24 wild pitches.  This season, at Tulsa, he was a bit better: 45 walks in 95.2 innings and six wild pitches.  Of course, he walked 13 in 17 innings during a short stay at Colorado Springs, but we’re quickly learning that Colorado Springs, 1000 feet higher than Denver and without the benefit of the humidor, is such an awful environment for pitchers that we can’t really read much into how our pitchers do there.  Ubaldo Jimenez walked 62 in 103 innings there this season.

And these two may be the Rockies’ fourth and fifth starters in 2008.

With two high-ceiling power pitchers who are both showing themselves to be MLB-ready, the Rockies are quickly solidifying their rotation heading into 2008.  Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook will be back to lead the rotation, with Jason Hirsh likely occupying the #3 spot.  Rodrigo Lopez, who will be a free agent in the offseason, can be allowed to walk, and so can Josh Fogg.  Lopez has been pretty good, but there’s no need for the Rockies to keep him around; he won’t come cheap, and the Rockies should have decent rotation depth with Taylor Buchholz around and Greg Reynolds getting ready in the minors.

The lineup doesn’t have too many question marks, either.  Kaz Matsui may walk, but that’s about it.  Troy Tulowitzki has solidified himself as the Rockies’ starting shortstop for the foreseeable future, and the long-rumored logjam at third base is finally coming to pass.  Matt Macri was dealt away last week, and it’s possible that the Rockies could part with either Garrett Atkins or Ian Stewart.

So, even if the Rockies aren’t going to make the playoffs in 2007, 2008 is shaping up to be a very good season for the men in purple and black.  That’s something that Rockies fans have been waiting quite a while for.

Rockies manage to score 9 runs at Petco and lose

So, how did that happen?  Petco Park, normally known as the ballpark where batted balls go to die, suddenly resembled Coors Field, circa 1997, as the Rockies pounded out nine runs on fourteen hits (and, somewhat amazingly, no homers) but wound up losing 11-9 to the Padres after the Pads pounded out nine runs on eight hits in one inning.

But, hey, aside from that, the Rockies’ pitching staff gave up two runs on six hits over seven innings.  Those numbers would be good enough to win on most nights, particularly nights when Clay Hensley was doing his best to make sure that giving up Barry Bonds’ 755th homer was not enough and that everybody was welcome to score runs off him.  Hensley lasted five innings, gave up six runs on six hits and four walks … and somehow came away with the win.

Now, I’m no pitcher, but if I were, and I allowed ten baserunners to reach base in five innings and allowed six of them to score — for you math types, that’s a 10.80 ERA and 2.00 WHIP — I’d expect to hit the showers, be thankful that while I wasn’t that good, my start wasn’t disastrous and wouldn’t cause the bullpen to have to pitch seven innings and be out for the next three days, and go get ’em the next time out.  I would not, however, expect a W next to my name in the box score.  Unfortunately, that’s what happened.

Up until that point, Elmer Dessens, the Rockies’ latest starting pitcher, had actually been doing well.  Dessens had given up two runs, but in the top of the fifth inning the Rockies scored four and staked him to a 6-2 lead.  After walking catcher Pete LaForest to start the bottom of the fifth, Dessens struck out pinch hitter Marcus Giles and got brother Brian to fly out.  He was one out away from being in line for the win.

Then, in a flash, Geoff Blum singled, and Mike Cameron hit a three-run homer.  Still a 6-5 lead; nothing terrible.  For whatever reason, Clint Hurdle decided that he’d seen enough from Dessens (after 74 pitches) and pulled him for reliever Jeremy Affeldt.  Affeldt, with a sparkling 2.51 ERA heading into the game, should have been counted on to get Adrian Gonzalez, a fellow lefty, out… right?

But that’s not what happened.  Gonzalez singled, then moved up to second on a wild pitch.  Then, for some bizarre reason, Clint Hurdle decided to intentionally walk Khalil Greene and his .236 average.  I suppose that pitching to Terrmel Sledge, who’s batting .212, including a truly atrocious .045 average against lefties, was a decent idea, but Hurdle apparently hasn’t noticed that intentionally walking one hitter so that you can pitch to a presumably weaker hitter is never a good idea.  Naturally, Sledge doubled, scoring both runs.  Then Kevin Kouzmanoff hit an RBI single.  Then Pete LaForest — as you’ll recall, the man who led off the inning — hit his second career homer.

Hurdle finally decided that he’d seen enough of Affeldt, but only after Affeldt had given up five runs without retiring a single batter.  Matt Herges came in and promptly gave up a pair of hits to the Giles brothers, the latter of which scored a run.  Geoff Blum then mercifully flied out to put an end to the inning.

So, let’s recap: Three pitchers, thirteen batters faced, and only three outs.  Nine runs, eight hits, and two walks.  Even though the Rockies managed to get three of the runs back against Kevin Cameron — who somehow was sporting a 0.80 ERA coming in despite not being very good — they were effectively done after that fifth inning.

Obviously, the pitchers didn’t do a great job, but I think some of Clint Hurdle’s decision-making needs to be questioned here.  Hurdle probably pulled Dessens at the wrong time.  Dessens was making his first start in the majors since October 2005.  At the time he was pulled, he’d thrown 74 pitches, but even that may have been too much.  You see, Dessens started the season in Milwaukee’s bullpen.  After landing on the DL in late May (the Brewers called up Ryan Braun to take his roster spot; I’m sure they’re still happy that Dessens happened to get hurt), Dessens was on the shelf until July 17, when he made his first of three rehab starts for AAA Nashville.  In the longest of those three starts, he went five innings, but that was largely because he only threw 63 pitches.  He was activated from the DL on August 2, but didn’t pitch for Milwaukee; instead, Milwaukee optioned him back down to AAA two days later and then waived him on August 8.  Dessens pitched three innings in relief for the Sky Sox on August 10 and threw 40 pitches, his last appearance before being called up to start in place of Aaron Cook.

That give you an idea?  Expecting Dessens to go five innings was a stretch, but for a while he looked like he just might do it.  He entered the fifth having thrown 56 pitches, but he’d been solid.  On the flipside, though, we’re talking about a man whose longest outing of the year had been 63 pitches, who hadn’t faced major league hitters in almost three months, and who hadn’t pitched in two weeks before a 40-pitch outing last Friday.  It would have been understandable for Hurdle to have pulled Dessens after four, but it’s also understandable that he wanted to save his bullpen for a bit, and that he wanted to give Dessens a chance to get the win.

The walk to LaForest to lead off the fifth, though, pushed Dessens to 61 pitches.  It would have been understandable to pull him there as well; after all, he’d pitched well to that point, and the same rationales applied that did before the inning started.  Realistically, if Dessens was going to pitch into the fifth inning, he should have been lifted at the first sign of trouble.  The flipside is that Dessens struck out the next batter, and then got Brian Giles on two pitches.

At that point, he was one out away from being in line for the win, but he’d also thrown 68 pitches — more than he’d thrown all year.  The single to Blum put him at 71 pitches, and at that point Hurdle went to the mound, but evidently decided that he still had enough left to get Cameron.  But that’s not what happened, and Dessens ended up letting the Padres back in the game on Cameron’s three-run homer.  In hindsight, Hurdle left Dessens in too long.  If he was going to leave Dessens in in an attempt to let him get the win, Dessens should have been pulled at the first sign of trouble.  Whether you think that’s the walk to LaForest or the single to Blum that put runners on the corners with two out, Dessens should not have been in the game to pitch to Cameron.  Of course, Hurdle, managing with a four-run lead, evidently thought leaving Dessens in to get the win was more important than trying to control the damage.

Then came the disaster that was Jeremy Affeldt.  Affeldt came in and promptly went 3-0 on Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres’ most dangerous hitter, and then gave up a single on a 3-2 pitch.  After going 2-0 on Greene, including a wild pitch that moved Gonzalez to second, Hurdle put Greene on to pitch to Sledge.

Let’s look at that move.  Sledge, who was batting .212 coming into the game and an atrocious .045 against lefthanders, obviously didn’t pose much of a threat in Hurdle’s mind.  On the other hand, how much of a threat was Greene?  Greene entered the game hitting just .238, and while he’s batting .274 against lefties and is a decent power threat, putting him on served no real purpose.  The issue here was that Affeldt had no command, and that meant that Sledge was about as likely to hurt him as Greene was.

The other issue here was that Hurdle left Affeldt in to pitch to two more batters after Sledge doubled.  When a guy’s clearly off, as Affeldt was tonight, you try to get him out of there as soon as possible and limit the damage.  After the Sledge double, the score was still only 7-6; bringing in Herges then could have put out the fire and allowed the Rockies to rally for a run or two in the next inning, which they did.  (Never mind that Herges gave up hits to the first two batters he faced; Hurdle didn’t know he would do that.)  Leaving him in to pitch to Kouzmanoff and Laforest, though, blew up in the Rockies’ faces as that made it 10-6.

But the real issue that led to the big inning was that Hurdle gave Dessens too long of a leash.  I realize that the bullpen’s gotten a lot of work the last two games, and Hurdle needed to try his best to get five innings out of Dessens and save the bullpen a bit, but Dessens needed to be pulled at the first sign of trouble, and Hurdle did not do that.  If Hurdle was going to try to leave him in through the fifth, he should have had the bullpen up almost immediately.  He should have visited Dessens at the mound after the walk to the first batter, not when he was facing a dangerous hitter with two men on.  There is no way that Elmer Dessens should have been pitching to Mike Cameron.

Oh well.  We’ll get ’em next time.  Tomorrow night it’s Josh Fogg, our de facto number two starter.  That about sums up the state of the Rockies’ rotation right now: Josh Fogg is currently our number two starter.

Rockies get fairly stupid

The desperation for a playoff berth in Denver is palpable.  With the team currently four games over .500, five games out in the division, and three out in the wild card, nobody is about to give up on the season.  But the recent spate of injuries to the starting rotation — which wasn’t great to begin with — has the Rockies scrambling to find arms.

Enter Ramon Ortiz.  Today the Rockies actually traded for Ramon Ortiz, giving away a decent prospect in Matt Macri.  Obviously, the Rockies are playing for this season, although Ramon Ortiz certainly is not going to make the difference between making the playoffs for the first time in 1995 and missing them.  While Macri isn’t the Rockies’ top prospect, the Rockies probably could have used him, if not this year, then at least in 2008 or 2009.

Of course, the team is desperate for arms right now.  Rodrigo Lopez is done for the season.  Jason Hirsh broke his leg, pitched five innings on it anyway, and now is going to be out for a while.  The latest injury to hit was Aaron Cook (well, him and Willy Taveras, but the Rockies can just use Ryan Spilborghs as a fill-in for the next couple of weeks.)

So how does Ramon Ortiz help?  My theory is that Ortiz is the "no surprises" option.  Sure, Franklin Morales is probably going to be better than Ramon Ortiz, but there’s also the chance that, if he’s stuck in the rotation right now, he’ll blow up and spend the first half of next year at AAA trying to regain his confidence.  Ortiz, while he’s not going to be very good, at least won’t be completely awful.  Ortiz was 3-4 with a 5.75 ERA as a starter for the Twins this season — again, not very good, but it’s better than throwing in some prospect to go 0-5 with an ERA over 10.

I don’t like this trade, but I suppose with the Rockies playing for this year and Morales probably not ready, it’s understandable from the front office’s perspective.  Morales, who’s walked 13 batters in 17 innings since moving up to AAA, could very well be an embarrassment at this point.  Ortiz could be an embarrassment, too, but at least if he is the team can rid themselves of him easily rather than having to send him to AAA to work out his problems.

And we still could see Morales, anyway, since apparently Ortiz isn’t going in the rotation.  If he’s not going in the rotation, what was the point?

Looking forward to football season?

Okay, I admit it — I’m actually looking forward to football season.

What’s that, Tom?  What in the name of Ian Stewart is going on here?

It’s true.  No, I’m not looking forward to the NFL season.  I’m never looking forward to the NFL.  I hate the NFL.  The Super Bowl, to me, is more about the party and watching the commercials than it is about the actual game.  College football, though, is a great love of mine.  A lot of that has to do with growing up largely in SEC country, where if you don’t like college football, your manhood is in serious question.  Perhaps part of my excitement has to do with the fact that maybe, just maybe, this is the year that my beloved Vanderbilt Commodores finally get to a bowl game.

But what’s wrong with me?  It’s the middle of August, the Rockies are over .500 and are playing solid baseball right now … and a large part of me is looking forward to college football?

Well, I’ve just had this sinking feeling lately that this isn’t the Rockies’ year.  Sure, there was that game tonight, a competitive game for six innings that turned into a 15-2 laugher.  I was driving back from Memphis to Nashville tonight, turned on the radio in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game, and figured I’d be listening to a great game for much of the ride home.  Instead, well, Jamey Carroll almost immediately connected on his first career grand slam and it turned into the other kind of great game — not great because it’s competitive and could go either way, but great because your team is not just winning, they’re killing the opposition in front of 48,095 fans, many of whom, in fact, were rooting for the other team.  And let’s be honest with ourselves; the spike in attendance numbers has nothing to do with the fact that the Rockies are in contention for a playoff spot.  They were in contention for a playoff spot during the Brewers series, too, and the Brewers are in the playoff race too — there’s just no other way to explain a jump in over 10,000 fans per game from that series to this one.  This one’s a draw because the Cubs are in town, and those aren’t Rockies fans boosting the attendance numbers.  One only needed to hear the Cubs fans screaming and chanting "Let’s Go Cubs!" during the first game of the series to figure that out.

So, after tonight’s win, why is that sinking feeling still there?  While the Dodgers are tanking, the Diamondbacks have suddenly gotten very, very hot.  Brandon Webb’s complete game shutout tonight — his second in as many starts — only underscores the Diamondbacks’ M.O. for the season: don’t hit much, but get enough good pitching to (just barely) get by.  It continues to boggle my mind how the Diamondbacks, despite being outscored by 20 runs over the course of the season, are a ******** sixteen games over .500.  On the flipside, the Rockies have outscored the opposition by 43 runs, and yet we’re just four games over .500.

But that’s what this "sinking feeling" is all about.  While the Dodgers are tanking (4-12 since July 23) and the Padres are treading water (13-15 since the break), the Diamondbacks are red hot (19-8 since the break, and 17-3 since July 20.)  I keep waiting for the Snakes to fall apart, but every good thing that happens for the Rockies, like tonight’s win, seems to be counterbalanced by a bad thing (from the Rockies’ perspective, anyway) happening concerning the Diamondbacks.  Beating the Cubs 15-2 doesn’t matter when the Diamondbacks are beating the Nationals 1-0; to the gods of baseball, both wins are equal, even if in our minds they’re not.  And losing the first two games of the series really hurts when the Diamondbacks were beating the opposition both nights.  That’s why the Rockies’ poor start to the season hurts so much.  We’ve had three straight winning months since April, but the bad start in April means we’ve been playing catch-up all year.

I was correct and Tim Harikkala’s going to be making the start in tomorrow’s finale.  Tim’s made exactly one start in the big leagues, for Seattle in 1996, and that didn’t go well.  He’s made 72 career appearances, 71 in relief, and 55 of those came for the Rockies in 2004, when he went 6-6 with a 4.74 ERA.  A lot of his success that season had to do with an amazingly lucky — especially in 2004 Coors Field! — .227 BABIP.  That’s incredible luck — that year, Coors had a park factor of 120, compared with 107 this season.  We’ll see if Tim’s luck at Coors continues tomorrow, but I’m not betting on it.  Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks are playing host to the Nationals and Mike Bacsik, a man who, no matter what else he does in his career, will forever be known as the man who gave up #756.

Tim’s probably up just for tomorrow and will be sent out again after the game.  On the flipside is Ian Stewart, who made his major league debut last night, went 0-for-2 and got hit in the head by a pitch, then left the game, probably just as a precautionary measure.  Ian may just be up for a cup of coffee for now with Jeff Baker on the DL and Todd Helton banged up, but he should be in the majors for years to come.  Ian’s apparently playing third, with Atkins at first for now.  In light of that, I’m not sure why the Rockies didn’t call up Joe Koshansky.  The team’s in a similar situation with Koshansky as they were with Ryan Shealy last season, except that Todd Helton is just a little closer to being in the twilight of his career.  In retrospect, we probably made the right move with Shealy, who didn’t hit for the Royals and got sent back to AAA.  But can we be sure that Koshansky’s not the real deal?  Now’s as good a time as ever to find out.

Just like that, we’re bad again

Okay, so it’s really jumping to conclusions to say that, after two losses to the Cubs, we’re bad again.  But it sure seems that way.

You see, being a Rockies fan in 2007 is even more frustrating than being a Rockies fan in 2005 ever was.  At least with the 2005 Rockies, they were bad, you knew they were going to be bad, and any positive developments were met with great joy while any negative developments were expected.  You were happy when they won, but when they lost, hey, you weren’t surprised.

While we’re not expecting to win the division, or expecting a win on a nightly basis, I certainly thought we had worked past those lengthy losing streaks.  This season, though, the Rockies are the biggest tease in the major leagues.  They were pretty awful during the first month and a half of the season, but just when fans in Denver were about to forget about the Rockies and start waiting around for the Broncos to open training camp, the Rockies reeled off seven straight wins.  But then, after a 20-7 stretch that vaulted us back into contention, we dropped nine of ten on the road.

And, to start the most recent homestand, the Rockies swept the Brewers out of town with an amazing offensive performance.  Then, however, the Rockies scored four runs in the first two games of this series with the Cubs.  Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks continue to be hot and are opening some distance between them and the rest of the division.  The Dodgers have flopped lately, but the Rockies still haven’t been able to make up much ground.

Aaron Cook didn’t pitch that badly tonight, as he was snakebitten by an error that ended up letting in three runs.  But the pitching, if it hasn’t been that big of a problem all season, is about to blow up in our faces.  Rodrigo Lopez is done for the season, and Jason Hirsh, after pitching five innings on a broken leg the other night, is back on the DL again.  If the thought of Josh Fogg as our #3 starter is bad, well, the back of the rotation is worse.  Ubaldo Jimenez has pitched the last few times through the rotation, but he’s hardly nailed down that spot.  His control is still a major problem (14 walks in 24.2 innings.)  He’s been too hittable, and he’s a bit homer-prone.  All of that’s added up to a 6.57 ERA and a 1-4 record in his starts.  Who takes Hirsh’s spot in the rotation on Sunday?  Taylor Buchholz, who pitched five innings in relief of Jimenez on Thursday, won’t be available.  Matt Herges hasn’t pitched since Wednesday, when he went three innings, but he’s 37 and has made a grand total of four MLB starts.  Top prospect Franklin Morales, like Jimenez, still has some control problems that need to be ironed out.  I suppose Tim Harikkala, who threw six shutout innings for Colorado Springs on Tuesday, could get the call.

This pitching situation could get ugly soon, though.  Denver is slowly but surely getting ready for football season.