So we’re hanging in the Rockies’ dugout with manager Jim Tracy before Sunday’s finale of the Dodgers series at Coors Field and I ask him what he’s looking for out of rookie pitcher Alex White, who is scheduled to take the mound a couple of hours later.
“I don’t know why I’m going to tell you this, OK?” Tracy says. “There’s a part of my gut that says to me that we are going to see the best game that we’ve seen from Alex White since he put a Rockies uniform on . . . . He may make a liar out of me. I really hope he doesn’t.”
About five hours later, after White had thrown 6 2/3 innings of two-hit ball to lead the Rocks to a 3-2 victory and a 6-1 homestand, Tracy met with the media wretches once more.
“Nostradamus,” I inquired, “do you have any other predictions for us?”
“I don’t have any more for you,” Tracy said, smiling. “Stay tuned.”
He had seen this coming in the early innings of a couple of White’s recent starts. But then somebody hit a pitch that got too much of the plate and White began nibbling, pitching away from contact, and everything came apart.
“Look, there’s something that leads to a gut feeling,” Tracy said. “His last couple of outings, we saw very similar in the early part of the game that we saw for 6 2/3 innings today with both the two- and the four-seam fastball. Today, he just kept coming after people. That’s why I had the gut. I saw very similar today in previous starts, I just didn’t see it long enough. Today he was after the bat all day long.”
During an 18-day stretch from May 4 to May 22, the Rocks went from hopeful to battered as their starting pitching dissolved. They lost 15 of 18 games, falling from 12-12 to 15-27. Angry fans peppered radio talk shows with demands and invective. Fire somebody. Trade somebody. Do something.
You don’t climb out of a hole that size in a week or two. The Rocks remain seven games below .500 at 23-30 as they head out for a brief trip to Arizona before returning to Coors Field this weekend to resume interleague play. Winning six out of seven at home, including two of three against the division-leading Dodgers, restored the morale of the clubhouse. But the strong performance from a starting pitcher was the main tonic, reminding them how good they could be if they weren’t constantly scrambling to make up for the worst starting pitching in the league, as they have been most of the season so far.
“He threw the ball better than we’ve ever seen him throw,” Todd Helton said of White, one of three young pitchers obtained from Cleveland in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade last summer. “He pitched inside very effectively. A lot of guys were taking some bad swings on some fastballs. It’s good to see.”
Coors Field has been playing a lot like its pre-humidor days in the first two months of the season, but it’s been hard to tell whether that was meteorology or lousy pitching. White and Dodgers starter Nathan Eovaldi made it look like the latter, putting on a good old-fashioned pitchers’ duel before 35,353 fans on a hot Sunday afternoon that seemed made for the long ball.
White had a one-hit shutout through six, the only blemish a solid single to left by Jerry Hairston in the fourth. In the seventh, he gave up a walk to James Loney and a two-run homer down the left field line to A.J. Ellis on a two-seam fastball. Tracy tried to nurse him through the inning, but when he walked Adam Kennedy with two out, Tracy took the ball, his club clinging to a 3-2 lead.
“I think I just lost a little bit of the strike zone there for a minute, but I felt good,” White said. “I don’t know how many I threw, but I felt just as good late as I did early.”
White threw 103 pitches, 58 of them strikes. He walked five and struck out two. He induced 13 ground balls, many of them jam shots off his four-seam fastball.
“I think it was a lot of things coming together — mentally, physically, being able to make a few adjustments to command my fastball like I did,” he said. “I really felt like that was coming, coming into the start. It did come together and I felt good the whole game.”
From the bullpen, which leads the National League in innings pitched and covered 16 1/3 of the 18 innings in the first two games of the series, it looked pretty good.
“We were really proud,” said Matt Belisle, the workhorse of the staff who made his 27th appearance in the team’s 53rd game, working 1 1/3 perfect innings to deliver the game to closer Rafael Betancourt.
“We needed it. I think it showed some of (White’s) grit and determination to just fill up the zone and let these guys hit themselves out and not try to be too picky. We were very proud and he came up big.”
Tracy initially called on southpaw Rex Brothers to face left-handed hitting Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon. But when Gordon reached on an infield bleeder, Tracy summoned Belisle to face pinch-hitter Alex Castellanos. With runners on first and second and two out, a hit would tie the game and leave White with nothing to show for his best effort as a big leaguer.
Castellanos ripped the ball on the ground toward right-center field.
“He squared up a slider pretty good and I looked back and all I see is No. 9 on a hard backhand,” Belisle said.
Rookie second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, obtained last winter from the Cubs in the Ian Stewart trade and forced into action by Troy Tulowitzki’s groin injury, speared it on a short hop.
“It was the right spot at the right time and it felt good to come through for the team like that,” the freckle-faced 23-year-old said. “The ball was hit so hard, it was kind of a reaction.”
Like his teammates in the dugout, Belisle exulted on the field.
“I think it was a great job to put it in the mitt, but to gather himself and turn and make an accurate throw was even better,” he said. “It was a huge play in a huge situation and I’m really proud for him and for the club. That’s a great play for a rookie who’s been up for a little bit.”
LeMahieu received a hero’s welcome in a dugout desperate for a turning point.
“Noisy in our dugout,” Tracy said. “Every guy up on the rail. They couldn’t wait for him to get into the dugout, embrace him, hug him, give him a high-five.”
Betancourt finished it, but not before a couple of close calls. Bidding for his second jack of the game, Ellis drove Carlos Gonzalez to the left field wall with a ninth-inning fly ball. Tony Gwynn Jr. drove Michael Cuddyer to the warning track with the game’s final out.
“Here in Denver, you never know,” the veteran closer said with a smile.
Did the homestand change anything? There’s no way to know yet. The Rocks will have to keep it going and climb back above .500 to restore the faith of those who lost it during the May misery. But at least there’s a glimmer of hope now.
“I think it goes without saying that we went through about a 17-day period of living hell,” Tracy said. “That’s what we went through. And we didn’t waiver, we didn’t falter, we didn’t point fingers, we didn’t make excuses. We just kept plowing. Who’s to say how this is going to turn out, but as we go along this may be something we’ll look back on and say, one of the reasons why we became a good ballclub is because when we were seriously challenged from an adversity standpoint, we stood up to it.”
“I think it brought us closer,” said Belisle. “During the real trough of so many losses, we held together. I think everybody who’s been here knows that this team’s extremely capable of some really hot streaks, but that we have to act out what we preach as far as coming to the park every day with the same preparation, attitude and focus, despite the outcome of the game. And I think during the losses, we did that really well. So now that they’re starting to turn, we’re not getting too high, we’re just continuing to do what we know we have to, and that’s be the same with our preparation.”
Added Helton: “Every year when you go through a bad stretch you realize what it takes going out every day, grinding, doing the little things that it takes to win. I think every team goes through that. We’ve still got a ways to go. We dug ourselves a hole, but we’re playing better baseball right now.”
Tracy saw this one coming. If the other young pitchers can follow White’s lead, he may see some more.