Rockies’ dilemma: Hope or change?

Sunday’s in-game conversation on Twitter was all about the Rockies needing to do something dramatic to get out of a funk that dropped them to 15-25 on the season as the lowly Seattle Mariners completed a three-game sweep with a 6-4 victory at Coors Field.

Fire somebody. Rewrite the lineup. Something.

The post-game conversation in the clubhouse was all about the Rockies as currently constituted needing to get it together in a hurry.

“There’s no Lombardi speech you can give,” said veteran Jason Giambi. “We’ve just got to try to win one game and make it that simple. I mean, we can’t play any worse than we have. We need to pick it up and win tomorrow. And then win the next day. I think we can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

Manager Jim Tracy was more succinct:

“Obviously, we’re in a rut, and we have to dig ourselves out,” he said. “That’s what we have to do. We’ve got 122 chances to do it.”

That would be the number of games remaining on the schedule. So there’s plenty of time, but the trend is not their friend. The Rocks were 12-12 on May 2. Since then, they are 3-13.

Todd Helton, who saw his batting average fall to .219 on Sunday, stood at home plate in the bottom of the ninth with the tying runs on base and two out. He struck out for the third consecutive time to end the game. I asked him afterward what the strike three pitch was.

“A fastball right down the middle,” he said. “It was about the only pitch I saw all day that I felt like I was on. I was waiting to hear a sound and I never did.”

Tracy said it was just a slump, like the one right fielder Michael Cuddyer was in (0-for-13 on the homestand) before breaking out with a single and two doubles Sunday. But when you’re three months from your 39th birthday, as Helton is, every slump comes with additional questions: Is this it? Remember Dale Murphy? Should the Rocks be anticipating the end by moving somebody else into the No. 5 hole in the lineup?

Then again, the No. 4 hitter isn’t doing much better, and he’s only 27. Nearly two months into the season, Troy Tulowitzki has four homers and 16 RBI.

“I don’t think Troy’s in a very good place right now offensively,” Tracy said of his shortstop, who came up with two on and one out in the ninth, just before Helton, and hit a harmless ground ball to third.

The Rocks got three-hit days from Carlos Gonzalez and Cuddyer but did not benefit from any compounding effect because they were separated in the lineup by the combined 0-for-8 of Tulo and Helton. CarGo and Cuddyer never came up in the same inning.

Hence my own modest proposal, Cuddyer’s recent slump notwithstanding: Move Tulo and Helton down in the order until they get their swings back. Move Cuddyer into the No. 4 hole and Tyler Colvin into the No. 5 hole, at least against right-handers, as long as he’s hitting well.

“It’s just hard to smile right now,” said Gonzalez, who had a single, double and home run out of the No. 3 hole to increase his team-leading totals to eight jacks and 32 RBI.

“It doesn’t matter what you do out there. Not being able to win is difficult. It’s tough for me, it’s tough for everyone else in this clubhouse. We’re a talented team but we’re just not playing really good baseball. We need to start playing better defensively. We’re making little mistakes that cost runs. At the end of the game, that’s when you see the difference. All those runs that we give away, that costs you at the end of the game.”

Sunday, it was a botched defense against a stolen base attempt in the first inning. With Mariners leadoff man Dustin Ackley on third, cleanup man Kyle Seager on first and two out, Seager took off for second. Rookie catcher Wilin Rosario let loose with a wild throw to the shortstop side of the bag. Ackley broke from third. Second baseman Marco Scutaro came off the bag to spear the errant throw, then let loose a wild throw of his own back to the plate. It sailed wide of Rosario and Seattle had its first run. The Mariners plated another two-out run with a walk and a single before the Rocks finally escaped the top of the first, trailing 2-0.

When I asked Gonzalez what else he was referring to, he pointed out the team’s usual problems playing fundamental baseball.

“If there’s a guy on second base, we can’t be making big swings instead of just moving the runner,” he said. “That’s a free run for us. We always push the pedal at the end, but we’re going to fall short if we don’t do that early in the game. We had a couple opportunities with a runner on second and if you don’t get that guy to third base with no outs, you’re making it a lot more difficult for the guy right next to you. It’s always going to be that way if you don’t play smart baseball. That’s what I mean saying we need to play better baseball.”

Two cases Sunday fit his description. Cuddyer singled and stole second leading off the bottom of the second. Rosario followed with a big swing strikeout and Cuddyer never advanced beyond second. Eric Young Jr. singled and stole second leading off the fifth. Scutaro pulled a ground ball to short and Young had to stay put. He never advanced beyond second, either. Find a way to small-ball those runners home and the two runs the Rocks scored in the ninth are enough to tie it.

Which brings us to the starting pitching, the Rockies’ black hole so far. It let them down again Sunday. Away from Coors Field, veteran Jeremy Guthrie has been all general manager Dan O’Dowd hoped he would be (2-0, 1.86 ERA) when he acquired him from Baltimore last winter. At Coors Field, after Sunday’s outing, he is 0-2 with a 9.92 ERA.

Everybody knows about the challenges of pitching at high altitude, so I asked Guthrie if Coors Field presents problems for him.

“I haven’t pitched very well here so I can’t necessarily judge it by the field,” he said. “I just know I haven’t executed nearly enough pitches when I’ve pitched here, both falling behind guys and making poor pitches ahead in the count.”

Not sure if he understood the question, I asked if it’s harder to execute his pitches at Coors.

“It doesn’t seem any harder,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t done it as consistently as I have in the past, but I don’t know that it’s inherently any more difficult to do it here than it would be at another mound. It’s pretty much the same game.”

Many of the fixes that unhappy fans want wouldn’t necessarily change anything immediately. Fire Tracy, fire O’Dowd, fire pitching coach Bob Apodaca. It is the players on this year’s roster that are putting up the season’s dreary numbers, and you can’t fire them; at least, not all of them.

When O’Dowd fired Clint Hurdle in 2009, it was just six games later in the year (they were 18-28). But it was Hurdle’s eighth season at the helm and O’Dowd decided his voice had grown stale in the clubhouse. Tracy is in just his fourth season and there is no sign the front office has similar fears about him.

Firing Apodaca would suggest management believes the team’s pitching woes track back to the pitching coach. Fans tend to give coaches much more responsibility for players’ performances than team officials, who know just how often players pay attention to coaches and just how often they don’t. Still, if the club decides unhappy fans need a gesture, Apodaca might be the sacrificial lamb. The Rocks do have the worst team ERA in the National League.

Blaming O’Dowd makes the most sense because he assembled the roster that has performed so poorly so far. But front office firings seldom occur during the season and it’s only fair to point out that O’Dowd also built the Rockies teams that went to the playoffs two out of the past five seasons.

So for now, it’s on the players O’Dowd assembled. At 38, can Helton bounce back? At 27, will Tulowitzki ever learn to play within himself? Will some combination of young starting pitchers figure it out as the season goes on?

“We’re not playing well,” Helton said. “You’re obviously going to put more pressure on yourself to go out and win some games. We just need to start playing a little better. There’s no other way to put it.”

Hope is winning the argument now because there’s not that much of significance you can change during the season. But if hope doesn’t pan out, change is coming.

About Dave Krieger

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

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