View From the Rockpile—Musings From a Mile High Along the Journey to Rocktober
The Colorado Rockies opened their 2011 season in the friendly and paper-thin air of Coors Field against divisional rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, their co-tenants at the sparkling new spring training facility, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The hometown faithful openly dared to dream of a Rocktober renaissance after a solid spring training that saw the Rockies win 20 games with a well-balanced attack of power, fundamentals and youth.
MLB fans nationwide, on the other hand, took pause, viewing these Kid Rox with equal doses of skepticism and intrigue. While club leader Troy Tulowitzki is a popular pick for regular season NL MVP and staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez finds himself a sleeper NL Cy Young candidate, the consensus view on the Rockies as a whole is really that there is no consensus at all.
MLB insiders have poignantly questioned whether the 2011 iteration of the Dan O’Dowd-constructed squad has what it takes to unseat the World Champion San Francisco Giants, bringing Denver baseball its first NL West crown since the Rockies first took the field in Denver at Mile High Stadium in 1993.
Indeed, questions fly like a curveball at Coors Field, B.H. (Yes, Before the Humidor.)
Can Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart and Dexter Fowler make the leap from promising but inconsistent prospects to everyday contributors on a division-winning team?
Will the superstar duo of Carlos Gonzalez and Tulowitzki—CarGo and Tulo if you happen to be in LoDo—falter under the weight of public expectations following the rich contract extensions granted to them by the previously frugal owners—the Brothers Monfort?
Can Jhoulys Chacin mimic Jimenez’s breakout 2010, and can Jorge De La Rosa stay healthy enough and calm enough to take the weight off of Jimenez's shoulders?
Will Huston Street and Mr. Rockie himself—one Todd Helton—conjure their dominant 2009 campaigns, or will they merely continue on their respective declines from sunnier (and in Helton’s case, Hall-of-Fame-worthy) days on the Rocky Mountain sandlot?
After two games and a PPD for snow, there is reason to believe that the high hopes pervading downtown Denver are more than just grasping at thin air.
Despite a disappointing 7-6 Opening Day setback against the Diamondbacks in extra innings, the Rockies showed promise, nearly offsetting their Opening Day jitters and a shaky debut from Jimenez with Coors Field come-from-behind magic that has become the Rockies trademark.
New addition at second base, Jose Lopez, paid immediate dividends with a towering blast into the left field stands and a nifty behind-the-back flip to start an inning-ending double play with Tulowitzki at a critical juncture in the game, spearheading a rally in the bottom half of the seventh inning frame.
Fellow newcomer Ty Wiggington earned a start in place of the hobbling Stewart and displayed the versatility that led O’Dowd to target the 2010 All-Star by seamlessly moving to first base after manager Jim Tracy removed Helton for a pinch runner late in the game.
The Rockies ultimately lost when Justin Upton sprinted home from third base on a wild pitch from the location-challenged missile tossed by recently acquired reliever (and former Astros closer) Matt Lindstrom in the top of the 11th.
But the Rockies showed considerable poise on a day when their stars did not fully act the part on offense.
Tulowitzki (a/k/a Jeter 2.0) went 0-5 from the plate, striking out twice; the umpiring crew made two controversial calls in the outfield that helped to turn the tide against the Rockies; and Jimenez, bothered by a torn cuticle on his pitching thumb, had neither ace bandage nor his usual Ace’s stuff and the Diamondbacks jumped at the Dominican’s display of mortality, twice homering and knocking him out after six rocky innings.
A single loss in the marathon that is the MLB regular season is spilt milk. Two in a row against a divisional rival (and a cellar dweller to boot) with low aspirations and low expectations would be troubling to say the least for a Rockies club climbing the steps to the big boys’ treehouse.
This is why lefty gunslinger Jorge De La Rosa’s Saturday evening gem should be praised as newsworthy despite the fact that it occurred on day two of the 2011 MLB season.
De la Rosa displayed both power and control with his wide arsenal of pitches, keeping the D-Backs off-balance with five strikeouts over five-and-a-third shutout innings. Much like Jimenez, a blister under the middle finger nail on De La Rosa’s pitching hand led to an early exit for a Colorado starter for the second day in a row.
Jhoulys Chacin ended up with an extra couple of days to acclimate his pitching hand to the dry Denver air, as the Sunday rubber match was called—for snow. An early test awaits for the quiet right-hander, as he prepares to face a Dodgers club on an uptick after taking 3-of-4 to start the season against the Giants under new manager Don Mattingly.
Any prediction of the Rockies' ultimate success in 2011 must take into account the steady, demanding hand of 2009 NL Manager of the Year Tracy—yet another attribute that the Rockies have in their corner.
Tracy has preached accountability and returning to basics for his Colorado club, and his players have taken up the cause early on defensively—CarGo and Tulo showed their Gold Glove-winning form with numerous “Holy Cow” plays in the field, while Fowler and Seth Smith stomped on the warning track and took on the outfield walls to show their dedication to D.
The offense will come with patience, focus and poise to this loaded Rockies lineup as it adjusts to new hitting coach Carney Lansford's back-to-basics approach.
And yet, despite the ballyhooed offensive fireworks that have become a staple of baseball in Denver, it may well be getting back to basics on defense, however, that catapults the Rockies towards a return trip to the Fall Classic, like the 2007 version that led all MLB with a fielding percentage of .98925.
Though a 1-1 start assuredly "ain't nothing to tweet home about," it is possible that the early April snowfall is a signal of Rocktober magic in springtime.
Cuticles, blisters and snow.
Just a typical Opening Day weekend at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado.