Throughout their twenty-year history, the Rockies have been an above-average entertainment value in home openers.
There was the unforgettable first one, for example. Everyone remembers Eric Young hitting a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first, as if christening big league baseball in Colorado by smashing a bottle of champagne on the hull. Not everyone remembers Charlie Hayes hitting a two-run shot later that same inning on the way to a raucous 11-4 win over the Expos before an astonishing crowd of 80,227 at Mile High Stadium
Two years later, in another christening, they opened their new ballpark, Coors Field, with a four-hour, 49-minute, fourteen-inning marathon against the Mets. Down 9-8 in the bottom of the 14th, Dante Bichette hit a walk-off three-run homer that sent the most loyal among the sellout crowd of 47,228 — those who had not found an excuse to retreat from the cold — deliriously into the night.
In 2001, Mike Hampton pitched 8 1/3 innings of shutout ball to lead an 8-0 shutout of the Cardinals, providing temporary (and false, as it turned out) hope about the results of the team’s most expensive free agent signing of all time.
Four years after that, the Rocks delivered another walk-off in their opening act, a two-out, two-run homer by Clint Barmes in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Padres 12-10.
The next year, 2006, brought yet another walk-off win when Brad Hawpe drove in Matt Holliday in the bottom of the 11th to earn a 3-2 win over the Diamondbacks.
And two years ago, they cruised to an Opening Day 7-0 shutout over the Padres behind Jorge De La Rosa.
In all, the Rocks were 11-8 in home openers going into Monday’s 20th edition, and 8-4 since 2000.
So, all things considered, the twentieth curtain-raising was their lamest ever. For one thing, they had never failed to score in a home opener before the Giants’ 7-0 whitewash.
On a gorgeous Colorado spring afternoon, before a full house ready to rock Coors Field, the Rocks looked curiously unprepared to play, as if informed a game had been scheduled just minutes before it began. They made Giants starter Barry Zito look worthy of his seven-year, $126 million contract, which is otherwise considered one of the ten worst contracts in baseball history. At an altitude where breaking balls come to die, Zito’s curve ball completely baffled the Rocks. In fact, this was Zito’s first shutout in nine years and his first in the National League.
“Obviously, he pitched a good game,” Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said. “He got a lot of weak pop flies, kept us off balance. But we’ve got to put together better at-bats, and I think we will. I think nerves were a little involved. Hopefully the next game we’ll come out relaxed and swing the bats better.”
It wasn’t just the bats, although, admittedly, it’s hard to win when you don’t score. It was, as Mike Shanahan used to say, all three phases.
“We didn’t pitch well early in the game, we weren’t able to do a whole lot offensively and we had a miscue that helped lead to a three-run fifth inning,” manager Jim Tracy said, summing up the general incompetence succinctly. “I think tone to a game and tempo to a game is obviously very, very important, and the tempo that we set in the early part of the game was not good. Jhoulys (Chacin) struggled with his command throughout the time that he was out there.”
The Rockies’ winningest pitcher a year ago (11-14), Chacin threw 90 pitches in four innings, barely more than half of them (47) strikes. After leaving a pitch over the middle of the plate in the first and watching Pablo Sandoval airmail it into the right field stands for a two-run homer, he seemed to want nothing to do with the plate. He walked three batters in a row in the third, which turned the inning’s only hit, a single to right by catcher Hector Sanchez, into two more runs.
“The first two innings I feel pretty good,” Chacin said. “The third inning I just lost my focus and I was rushing all the pitches, my breaking ball and my fastball especially. I couldn’t get the ball to the plate and I walked a lot of guys in that inning . . . It’s a good thing I’ve got 30, 31 starts to go. I’m not going togive it up after one start.”
Meanwhile, the Rockies were batting as if hypnotized by Zito’s breaking balls. They lunged, they dove, they popped the ball in the air. The eight position players went down in order in the first three innings. The first of their four hits was a mighty twelve-foot nubber down the third-base line by Chacin himself. Marco Scutaro followed with a two-out single to center. This, it turned out, was their big rally of the day. Dexter Fowler fanned to end it.
The Rocks have now scored ten runs in four games. When I asked Tracy about this, he urged patience.
“I think it’s four games into the season and I think rather than push any kind of panic button or anything like that, we’re probably not the only club in baseball that right now is trying to find its way a little bit offensively,” he said. “I think the cure for that is to keep allowing a bunch of professional hitters to go up there and take at-bats and at some point in time, I guarantee you, we’ll get that squared away. There’s too many good hitters in this lineup for it to continue, in my opinion, for an extended period of time.”
For the sake of the paying customers, he’d better be right. Even prognosticators who didn’t think much of the Rockies’ chances this season thought they’d hit. Through four games, third baseman Chris Nelson is 0-for-10. Fowler is 1-for-11. Helton is 1-for-12. The team’s stars, left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki are batting .176 (3-for-17) and .214 (3-for-14), respectively.
“I actually felt good today,” said Helton, who went 0-for-4. “I know it didn’t show. Third at-bat it was tough to see. The shadows came into play. Fourth at-bat you could see. Put a couple good swings on the ball, but, you know, get ’em tomorrow.”
To complete Shanahan’s trifecta, the Rockies didn’t field well, either. The cherry on the Giants’ sundae was a three-run fifth against reliever Matt Reynolds that was built on a pair of errors — a dropped pop fly to short left by CarGo and a throw in the dirt to second from the hole between short and third by Tulo.
That’s six errors in four games, which is not a good ratio. Last year, they committed 98 in 162 and ranked ninth in the National League.
So, yes, it was only one game, but it was the sort of debut that can close a Broadway show in its first week. The sellout crowd of 49,282 booed the home team early and often.
The Rockies’ hardest-hit ball of the day was a foul line drive off the bat of Michael Cuddyer that hit Judith Reese, a woman celebrating her 69th birthday in the stands down the third-base line, in the head. The game was stopped so Reese could be removed on a cart normally reserved for injured players. Thankfully, she was treated for a concussion and released later in the day from Denver Health.
“I want to thank the fans, the paramedics and the community for their instant support,” she said, according to a news release by the hospital.
All in all, the opener was not exactly what the team marketing officer was going for.
“Yeah, it is disappointing,” Helton said. “Obviously, you want to go out and have a good showing Opening Day, and we didn’t do that. But in the end it is one game. We get a day off (Tuesday). It’ll be tough to sleep tonight, but after that you’ve just got to wash it off. It’s just one game. But yeah, with the excitement, the fans in the stands, it’d be nice to put together a better game.”
They’ll come back with Jeremy Guthrie against Giants ace Tim Lincecum on Wednesday. The early results don’t mean much for the outcome of the long season — the Rocks started 11-2 last year and finished 16 games below .500 — but a few signs of life would be nice.