Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez celebrate the Rockies Mini-Sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers
View from the Rockpile: Colorado Rockies Musings from a Mile High along the Journey to Rocktober
Although Rocktober magic has made the club's recent slow starts a distant memory, the Colorado Rockies entered 2011 determined to get off on a better foot than in previous seasons.
Coming off of a less than stellar 7-11 2010 record against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Rockies welcomed an early-season opportunity to make a statement that they are a force to be reckoned with in the 2011 Wild Wild NL West.
The Rockies jumped at the chance, taking two tough contests from their foes from L.A.: a 3-0 shutout on Tuesday night, in which Jhoulys Chacin out-dueled sleeper Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, followed by a good old-fashioned slugfest on Wednesday afternoon as the Rockies outlasted the Dodgers 7-4.
How did the Rockies do it? What does the mini-sweep tell us about the Rockies?
Take a look inside...
Chacin delivers a pitch in the early innings of the Rockies 3-0 shutout victory of the Dodgers on April 5, 2011
As the snow fell hard enough to cause a PPD on Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rockies starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin was reportedly anything but cool.
The Denver Post's Troy Renck reported that Chacin was hopping mad at the postponement, wanting nothing more than an opportunity to kickstart his 2011 sophomore campaign—his first as an Opening Day member of the Rockies active roster.
The Dodgers find themselves equally heated that Chacin was not able to make that Sunday matinee start, as he instead pitched seven shutout innings, matching wits and pitches with sleeper NL Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw in a 3-0 Rockies victory against the Dodgers on Tuesday night.
And yet, ask the Rockies how he performed, and you'd have been met with a resounding...mediocre. From Chacin to catcher Chris Iannetta to manager Jim Tracy, the Rockies clubhouse was in complete agreement that Chacin came nowhere close to his best stuff.
That's bad news for the NL West, but good news for the Colorado Rockies. Particularly given Ubaldo Jimenez's newfound home on the 15-day Disabled List (more on that to come in the next few days) due to a torn cuticle on his pitching thumb, the Rockies will be leaning heavily on Chacin to have a Jimenez-like breakout season in 2011.
Don't look now, but Chacin just might be the key to the Rockies' NL West title hopes. If Tuesday's performance is any indication, he is up to the task.
Chris Iannetta is congratulated in the Rockies dugout by his teammates after hitting a home run off of the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw in a 3-0 win on Tuesday, April 5th.
From the front office to the cheap seats in Coors Field, Chris Iannetta heard the calls from Rockies faithful near and far: Either get it together or get on outta here.
Iannetta has been arguably the Rockies most maddening and disappointing prospect. He is long overdue for a breakout season to prove that he can be the power-hitting, savvy game caller that the Rockies have been waiting to arrive for years now rather than the inconsistent defender and free-swinging crater he had become.
General Manager Dan O'Dowd made a resounding statement this offseason by going all in on Iannetta, allowing veteran free agent Miguel Olivo to leave for the Seattle Mariners without bringing in a veteran competitor to the Rockies' spring training camp.
Handle-bar mustache and all, Iannetta appears to be a new man a week into the 2011 season. Manager Jim Tracy raved about Iannetta's signal-calling behind the plate throughout spring training, and his command has translated in the early moments of 2011. Whether calming the volatile De La Rosa during a critical juncture of his first start or weaseling Jason Hammel out of numerous hairy situations in a victory on Wednesday, Iannetta has responded to the faith shown in him by upper management.
Just as importantly, as the middle of the Rockies' offensive lineup slowly gets into gear, Iannetta has played catalyst at the plate from the eighth spot, with three extra base hits (including a blast into the left-field bleachers against Kershaw), hitting .417 and earning three walks—a tenth of the way to the total of 30 free passes Iannetta earned in the entire 2010 season.
Carpe diem, he must and he is. With top prospects Wilin Rosario and Jordan Pacheco hot on his tail, Iannetta has taken the steps necessary to finally put all doubts to rest and earn himself the long look he deserves behind the plate for the Rox.
Todd Helton watches his 3-run home run sail into the right field bleachers during the Rockies 7-5 victory over the Dodgers at Coors Field on April 6, 2011.
One of the biggest concerns of the offseason for the Rockies organization was the strength of Todd Helton's back. Well, worry no more, because Todd Helton is back.
After a miserable 2010 season in which his chronic back pains made the proud Helton a shell of his former self and a liability in the heart of the Rockies' order, Helton spent the 2011 offseason strengthening his back and preparing to show that 2010 was a fluke rather than the beginning of the end.
Consider the hometown fans sold. Helton has come through in the clutch, knocking in a run on his first at bat of the season and crushing a three-run blast against Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley on Wednesday afternoon at Coors. (Heck, on a windier day, Helton might have had three home runs, as he followed his home run with two deep fly-ball outs to left and center field.)
Not to mention that Helton is back to his discerning self, earning walks and frequently working pitchers deep into counts, allowing his teammates to get a better sense of the pitcher's repertoire, and tiring the pitchers both mentally and physically. It's the Helton way.
And, of course, Helton's presence in the clubhouse cannot be understated. In the most intriguing interview of the first week of broadcasts on the newly-branded Root Sports Rocky Mountain, Helton gave greater insight into the scrutiny facing Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez after signing their mega-deals with the Rockies this past offseason.
Tulo and CarGo, like the rest of the club, will benefit from a veteran leader like Helton making sure they don't try to do too much to prove their worth. As Helton noted on Root, baseball is a game of failure, and it's how you deal with the failures that make you a success.
If 2010 was Helton's failure, prepare for the success that will be his 2011.
Jim Tracy looks on during the Rockies opening homestand at Coors Field in April 2011
In 2009, Jim Tracy inherited an underachieving Rockies ballclub playing at an 18-27 clip, and he found King Midas' touch. Time and again his managerial decisions proved to be correct, among them, installing Ian Stewart as the everyday third baseman at the expense of previous star Garrett Atkins.
The 2010 season was another story for the well-traveled Tracy. Critics often pointed to his overuse of relievers and failure to make a change as veterans like Brad Hawpe and Todd Helton continually failed in crucial situations, leading some to label Tracy as tone-deaf and incapable of adjusting on the fly.
There's a new sheriff in town if early 2011 is any sign of what's to come for the Rockies. Tracy has lit a fire under Stewart that the time is now, and the Rockies brought in 2010 All-Star Ty Wigginton (who started at third on Opening Day in place of the injured Stewart) to take over if and when Stewart proves incapable of getting out of his early career funk.
Carlos Gonzalez was recently quoted as saying that if Ian Stewart plays up to his potential, the Rockies can win the World Series. He'll find no disagreement, but the trouble may be getting him the chance—an 0-for-9 start at the plate, including two strikeouts in an 0-for-4 effort against the Dodgers on Wednesday, may cause the laid-back Stewart to press too much. It will be up to Tracy to find the right balance of playing time, patience and rest.
Similarly, closer Huston Street appears to be on a path towards continuing the roller-coaster ride that was 2010. Though Street has begun the 2011 season with three saves in three opportunities, it has been anything but comfortable. Tracy reportedly considered yanking Street in favor of bulldog southpaw Matt Reynolds on Wednesday before he struck out Hector Gimenez and Andre Ethier to nail down the 7-5 Rockies victory.
With the Rockies on their way to Pittsburgh to face a Pirates team managed by Clint Hurdle, who led the Rockies on their magical Rocktober run to the 2007 Fall Classic, Tracy seems on edge and ready to make moves as his players dictate he must.
That's a reassuring sign for Rockies fans who grew accustomed to nail-biters in 2010. It may not be as reassuring for Ian Stewart and Huston Street. Consider it something to watch.
Troy Tulowitzki flashes the leather that earned him a 2010 Gold Glove in turning a double play against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Troy Tulowitzki had a problem. It was a walk-up song problem.
After a fan vote decided that Tulowitzki would be greeted with Katy Perry's "Firework" each time he came to the plate for a Coors Field at-bat, he started the season in an 0-for-10 grind. Getting the fans involved is one thing, but nothing says "gut instinct" like an early-season slump for one of the league's most feared hitters.
So Tulo trusted his gut, switched the song to the one he wanted all along—namely, Justin Bieber's "Baby"—and, as the story goes, Tulo went yard in back-to-back ballgames against the rival Dodgers. Much like Tulo in a Rockies uniform, it seems that Bieber is here to stay. At least until the next 0-for-10 stretch.
With Tulowitzki fielding ground balls deeper than Kant, turning double plays at a rapid pace and finally regaining his timing at the plate, National League pitchers, starting with the Pirates this Thursday, can only close their eyes and hope.
Tulowitzki quite honestly admitted in the Denver Post's baseball preview edition that each and every season he suffers from a severe case of nerves, wondering if he will have what it takes to succeed for another grueling MLB season.
Now that those jitters are over, it's time for all of the pundits and fans who labeled Tulo as the preseason NL MVP favorite to sit back, relax and watch Tulo earn that hefty contract extension.
Take it to the bank. Baby.