The 2011 baseball season has not progressed as planned for the Colorado Rockies. After roaring out the gate to an 11-2 start, the Rockies have stumbled along and now find themselves sitting at .500 nearly a third of the way into the season.
On top of that, the team's most effective starting pitcher in 2011, Jorge De La Rosa, has effectively been lost for the season to a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
Can the team turn its fortunes around? Is the season already lost, or can the 2011 Rockies scale the mountain in front of them and win the NL West for the first time in franchise history?
To the average fan, the Colorado Rockies seem to be nothing more than a mediocre baseball team. The team is 23rd overall in batting at .242, and the pitching staff owns the 16th best ERA in the league at 3.75 ERA - stats worthy of a .500 team. But to those who know these Rockies, the silver lining is that this team is playing nearly as bad as it could, and the only way from here is up.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the terrible start to the season for starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. The 27 year old was supposed to anchor the Rockies' pitching rotation, complimented by sought-after free agent Jorge De La Rosa and emerging star Jhoulys Chacin.
Instead, Jimenez has laid a goose egg in the wins column for almost two months. Jimenez has been plagued by a bad cuticle, which has mightily affected his control and may be partially to blame for his 0-4 record and 5.44 ERA. Nonetheless, many fans are beginning to wonder whether last year's 19-win season was a fluke.
Enter the ring, Jorge De La Rosa. The 30-year old left-hander was a hot commodity in the off season, but decided to stay with the club that helped him resurrect his career. De La Rosa stepped up in 2011 when Jimenez faltered, providing veteran leadership to a young pitching staff. He was on his was to a career-year when he felt soreness in his elbow in a start against the Diamondbacks at Coors Field. When manager Jim Tracy and pitching coach Bob Apodaca walked out to the mound, they never expected they'd seen De La Rosa throw his last pitch of the season.
The loss of De La Rosa will be felt for certain. Newspapers and sports talk shows around Denver are clamoring about who the Rockies will bring in to replace him, but the good news for the team is that they have an ace who has been essentially a non-factor so far this year. If anybody can step up and fill the void left by De La Rosa, Ubaldo Jimenez can, and must.
Dan O'Dowd and Jim Tracy will bring up names like Juan Nicasio, and Rex Brothers to ease the burden on guys like Clayton Mortenson and Jason Hammel, but the truth is that the Rockies need the guy who was always supposed to be number one to now step up and BE that number one. Colorado got a pass in the first third of the season with De La Rosa picking up Jimenez's slack, but now is the time for the team's ace to pitch like an ace.
Possibly of even greater importance than the team's pitching is the team's offensive production—or lack thereof. The Rockies are hovering in the middle of the pack stat-wise, and they will go nowhere this year unless the bats of guys like Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki start to heat up.
Colorado ranks 9th in baseball in runs scored (214), 23rd in batting average (.242), and 15th in on base percentage (.318). Compare that with the top team in baseball, the Cleveland Indians, who rank 4th, 4th, and 6th in those categories, respectively. What the team will lack in pitching the rest of the season, they must make up for offensively. Gonzalez's and Tulo's respective .251 and .244 batting averages must climb closer to and above .300.
The most help they could have gotten this year may have been in the form of Giants catcher Buster Posey going down with an injury. While it is always unfortunate when a young star suffers a serious injury—a broken ankle in this case—the door is now open wider for the Rockies to win their division than it has ever been before.
The team has the pieces to be successful, but the players must learn to play like a cohesive unit, anticipating each others' decisions and learning one another's tendencies. Players like Ty Wigginton and Dexter Fowler need to solidify themselves in the batting order and at their respective defensive positions, while stars like Jimenez, Gonzalez, and Tulowitzki need to learn what it means to carry the team on their back to greatness.