At 38, the Toddfather can still walk off with the best of them

Make all the old man jokes you want. The Rockies have played five home games on the young season. Jamie Moyer, 49, has given them their longest start at Coors Field. And Todd Helton, 38, has provided the margin of victory the last two nights with clutch late-inning heroics.

For all their talent and youth, the kids could learn something from these old-timers.

For much of Saturday night, it looked as though the Rocks would finally pay for the inability of any starting pitcher other than Moyer to make it to the fifth inning.

Monday, in the home opener, Jhoulys Chacin started and pitched four innings. After a day off Tuesday, Jeremy Guthrie started Wednesday and lasted only 3 1/3. Moyer started Thursday and went 5 2/3. Juan Nicasio started Friday and managed just 2 2/3.

The bullpen handled all this with aplomb. It pitched 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball in relief of Nicasio as the offense erased a 6-2 deficit. It pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Moyer. In fact, the bullpen had a collective earned-run average of 1.71 going into Saturday night’s monsoon.

But when no starter manages to go six innings all week, it catches up to you eventually. So the Rocks were encouraged when Chacin showed up with better command Saturday night than he had in the home opener Monday. He was far from dominant, but he fought through four innings, giving up one run and throwing 64 pitches in a steady rain that had delayed the start of the game for sixteen minutes.

With the Rocks leading 5-1 and three outs from an official game, umpire Mike Winters called for the tarpaulin. Seventy-one minutes of rain delay later, Chacin’s night was done and the bullpen was looking at yet another short start.

“The third and fourth inning was really hard raining and the fifth was pretty much the same, I think it was slower than it was in the third or fourth, so I didn’t know why they called it,” Chacin said afterward.

“The very unfortunate thing for us was the fact that the game was stopped after the fourth inning,” manager Jim Tracy added. “And the amount of time that we were down, obviously we lose Jhoulys. And if you back up to yesterday, you got 2 2/3 from the starter yesterday. And if you go back to Opening Day, we had a short start.”

Esmil Rogers and Rex Brothers had each pitched the two previous nights. Matt Belisle had pitched Friday night and two of the previous three. So when play resumed Tracy went with Josh Roenicke, who promptly surrendered a three-run homer to Arizona’s Miguel Montero. As the rain resumed its steady beat, Tracy was forced to call on Belisle again, trying to nurse the one-run lead that remained, thinking the game might be called anytime.

“That’s our job, is to take the ball when we’re asked,” Belisle said. “The biggest thing is the preparation before and the expectation and anticipation that we may have to do this instead of sitting around going, ‘Oh, gosh, we’re in there again?’ In other words, honing the edge a little bit with how much we throw before the game, monitoring that and just understanding that we may have to pick up some innings.”

Matt Reynolds and Belisle would have gotten through the sixth, but Troy Tulowitzki committed two throwing errors, losing his grip on two wet balls. One of the resulting baserunners scored, tying the game. From there, the Diamondbacks managed another run off of Brothers, pitching for a third straight day, in the seventh. They put up another off Tyler Chatwood in the eighth.

The Rocks had been three outs from two straight wins over the division favorites and a .500 record. Now they were looking at a 7-5 deficit with time running out. On a dank, miserable night, it looked like they were going to get a miserable result.

They got one back in the eighth on a single by Tyler Colvin, who had homered earlier, and a double by Eric Young Jr. But as they entered the bottom of the ninth, the rain cascading down nearly five hours after the scheduled 6:05 start, they still trailed by one. On the mound was Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, who held the longest active save streak in the majors, 28 straight, dating to last July.

Trying to come inside to leadoff man Marco Scutaro, Putz hit him in the shoulder. Scutaro, 36, went down, then scrambled quickly to his feet and sprinted to first pumping his fist and looking into the home dugout as if to tell his mates they weren’t finished yet.

But Jason Giambi popped out and Tulowitzki struck out. As Helton approached the plate, he represented the Rocks’ last chance.

“I was just trying to get a grip on the bat at that point,” he said. “It was raining pretty hard at the time.”

Putz’s 1-1 offering was a fastball up and in. Helton turned on it and lifted a towering fly ball down the right field line. Arizona right fielder Justin Upton ran to the corner and set up to catch it. At the last minute he flung his head back, watching it nestle into the stands above him just inside the foul pole. Helton jumped for joy and his teammates streamed out of the dugout in the pouring rain to greet him at home plate.

“I didn’t think I hit it out,” he said. “I thought I hit it a little too high. But I’ll take it.”

“When he hit that ball, I couldn’t believe he kept it fair,” said Belisle, one of Helton’s closest friends on the team. “And then seeing him round those bases, I was just smiling ear to ear. I know that after that rain delay, coming back up, mentally it can be a struggle sometimes. But he’s a big game player and he’s been swinging the bat really well. I don’t think he’s faced Putz that much. It was just an incredible swing by a great player.”

It was also the second straight night that Helton delivered the game-winner. His eighth-inning double Friday night off Arizona’s Bryan Shaw drove in Carlos Gonzalez to break a 6-6 tie.

“Yeah, what about that?” Helton said in his usual deadpan. “I keep it in perspective. There’ll be days where I don’t get the big hit.”

If the Rocks end up contending this year, this will be one of those early-season mettle testers to remember. On a nasty night, after a week in which the bullpen had picked up the starting rotation time after time, the relievers finally faltered and the offense picked them up.

Indeed, a lineup featuring such golden oldies as Helton, Scutaro and Ramon Hernandez went into Saturday night’s game second in the National League in batting.

“It’s the whole old-school meaning of team,” Belisle said. “It’s what we do, and we’ll have to do it again. The great thing about our group is there’s no egos, so whatever Skip needs us to do, we’ll do.”

Skip was suitably impressed.

“That’s a great win,” Tracy said. “I’ve seen signs of this from this club, and I mean that. They have a moxie about them.”

In his sixteenth season, Helton leads the Rocks in RBIs in the early going with eight. This game had nowhere near the significance of the nightcap against the Dodgers on Sept. 18, 2007 when a similar walkoff homer against Takashi Saito helped launch the Rockies’ miraculous run to the World Series. But Helton’s celebration on the base path and the mob that greeted him at home plate were reminiscent of that night.

Informed he had shown that sort of emotion again, Helton replied, characteristically, “Yeah, sorry about that.”

Belisle smiled.

“I was giving him a little joshing for that, too,” he said. “It’s a big knock in a big game. I’m glad that everybody’s putting emotion and focus into each game. I don’t care if it’s April. Win every night.”

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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