Monthly Archives: March 2013

Rockies sign a pitcher not freaked out by Coors Field

In their never-ending quest for a veteran starter who can eat innings and provide leadership, the Rockies traded for Jeremy Guthrie a little more than a year ago. The move was a disaster on many levels.

Guthrie went 3-9 with a 6.35 earned-run average before being unceremoniously shipped off to Kansas City at mid-season. The Rockies paid a reported $7.1 million of his $8.2 million salary for this embarrassing performance.

Worse, Guthrie visibly freaked out trying to pitch at Coors Field, doffing his cap to the crowd sarcastically after one brutal outing and suggesting to the outside world that the Rocks’ home ballpark can drive a normal pitcher crazy. Or, at least semi-normal in Guthrie’s case.

In effect, the Rockies traded Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, whom they shipped to Baltimore for Guthrie, for broken-down Jonathan Sanchez, whom they received from Kansas City as a consolation prize when they got rid of him. Hammel was good, if fragile, for the Orioles, starting 20 games and going 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA. Sanchez was even worse than Guthrie for the Rocks, going 0-3 with a 9.53 ERA.

So when the Rocks went back out on the market a year later still looking for a veteran starter, they were a bit hamstrung. To pay major dollars to a starter who had never pitched in Colorado was now a verb. They did not want to be Guthried again. When I asked reliever Matt Belisle, who has thrived at Coors Field, how you can tell if a pitcher has what it takes mentally to pitch there, he said candidly that there’s no way to know until he does it. Not very comforting in a game in which every contract is fully guaranteed.

So the Rocks passed on the expensive free agent pitchers and seemed prepared to enter the season with what they had until Seattle obligingly released Jon Garland near the end of spring training. It was a little puzzling considering that in four spring starts for the Mariners, he’d given up three runs and 10 hits in 12 innings for a 2.25 ERA. If those results weren’t good enough, it’s not exactly clear why Seattle signed him in the first place.

“I was actually a little surprised, but then again, there’s more than just baseball, there is a business going on and they have to value certain things and certain moves that they’re going to make,” Garland said on the Dave Logan Show. “You know what, it came down to them making that decision and there’s no hard feelings there. Things work out for a reason and Colorado was able to pick me up and give me an opportunity.”

A first-round draft pick by the Cubs (tenth overall) in 1997, Garland is a 6-foot-6-inch, 210-pound horse who has taken the ball every fifth day for most of his career. He has made at least 32 starts in a season nine times.

In eight seasons with the White Sox — this just in: the Cubs made a bad trade — he won 92 games, including back-to-back 18-win seasons. Since then, he’s bounced around, always earning double-digit wins — 14 for the Angels in 2008, 11 for the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in 2009, 14 for the Padres in 2010 — before suffering a shoulder injury in 2011. He had surgery and was out of baseball in 2012, which is why he had to begin the tryout process all over again this spring. Still, he certainly looked healthy in his spring work for Seattle.

“The arm’s doing good,” he said. “I had the surgery in 2011 and took all of 2012 off to rehab and get it stronger. Being in the position I was in, pretty much already throwing a career, that was kind of a luxury that some guys don’t have. But so far this spring, everything’s been really good. It’s been responding well. It’s been bouncing back really well after games. To me, that was the biggest key coming in. I knew it was strong and I knew we were going to be fine, it was just how would it respond after a game, after throwing four, five, six innings and being ready for the next bullpen and the next game. And it’s done really well.”

Garland has thrown at least 190 innings in nine seasons, 200 or more in six. In his lone start for the Rocks in Scottsdale, he threw six innings and gave up one run. At 33, if his shoulder is sound, he should have plenty left in the tank.

“I want to make all my starts and I want to give the team a chance to win every time I’m on the field,” he said. “If I can get to the 200-inning mark, I think that would be a good accomplishment because that means you’re staying out on the field and the manager thinks you’re pitching well enough to give the team a chance to win.”

OK, fine, but what about the elephant in the room? What about Coors Field?

“I think that’s the biggest problem starting pitchers (have) coming in there, is they start to worry about it,” he said. “Is the ball going to carry? What’s going to happen here? My overall feeling is if you keep the ball down and you throw strikes and you work quick, you’re going to get outs regardless of what stadium you’re in.

“I think the biggest thing is just try and maintain that hydration there in Colorado because you don’t really bounce back as strong. But I think overall just the fact that people go in there and they hear so many bad things, I mean, I’ve played in parks that played smaller than that and the ball’s carried just as good. So, like I said, if you keep the ball down and you throw strikes, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you’re going to get outs.”

Unlike Guthrie, who had never started a game at Coors Field until the Rockies acquired him, Garland actually has a little experience with the barnyard on Blake Street. He’s started three games there — one in 2009 as a member of the Diamondbacks and two in 2010 as a member of the Padres. In the first, he pitched seven innings and gave up three runs. In the second, he pitched six innings and gave up four runs. In the third, he pitched seven innings and gave up three runs, two of them earned. Overall, that’s an ERA of 4.05, very respectable for the ballpark sometimes mistaken for a pinball machine.

If it weren’t for the shoulder issue, you might question whether Garland should be subjected to the pitch counts the Rocks imposed last season in an effort to keep their pitchers healthy. Reportedly, last year’s 75-pitch count will be relaxed to 90 or thereabouts this season. Garland threw 102 in each of his first two starts at Coors, 86 in the third.

On the other hand, he wasn’t pitching there regularly in those days and there is the matter of recovery he mentioned — starters don’t tend to bounce back quite as quickly at high elevation. Coming off major shoulder surgery, Garland is a health risk, which is probably why he was available to Colorado in the first place.

Familiar with Rockies personnel from his stints pitching for Arizona, Los Angeles and San Diego, Garland believes the club will be formidable offensively so long as its two cornerstones, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, stay healthy.

“As an opposing pitcher coming in and facing a lot of these guys, when they’re healthy and they’re right, it’s a damaging lineup,” he said.

“You have to be careful up and down that lineup and you have to makes sure to get the guys at the top of the lineup out. Otherwise, you can be in big trouble each and every inning. But I think the biggest key for this lineup is keeping Carlos Gonzalez and Tulo healthy. You keep those two guys healthy, everybody around them becomes better players. They start seeing better pitches, they start getting a little more selective, getting on base a little bit more and it all kind of gets rolling from there.”

However it works out, the Garland acquisition is thoroughly low-risk for the Rocks. His one-year deal is worth $500,000, so if he flames out, it’s not a big financial hit. A younger former first-round pick, Drew Pomeranz, is waiting in the wings just in case.

Garland’s experience pitching at Coors Field means it won’t be a complete shock to his system, as it was to Guthrie’s. And his history as a volume innings-eater suggests that if his repaired shoulder holds up, he just might be that stable veteran the Rocks have been looking for.

Wes Welker and the NFL’s triangular blind spot

Here’s a list of NFL receivers, most of them now out of the league. See if you can find the one that doesn’t belong.

  • WR                              Ht.       Wt.       Draft    Recep.     Yards      TDs
  • Reidel Anthony        5-11   178           1         144          1,846       16
  • Kevin Dyson              6-1      208           1        178           2,325       18
  • Rod Gardner             6-2      213           1         242          3,165       23
  • Bryant Johnson        6-2      214           1        314           3,938        16
  • Matt Jones                 6-6      242           1         166           2,153       15
  • Charles Rogers         6-3      202           1           36               440         4
  • Travis Taylor             6-1      210            1         312          4,017       22
  • David Terrell             6-3       215           1         128          1,602         9
  • Peter Warrick           5-11    192            1         275          2,991       18
  • Wes Welker               5-9      190        None    768          8,580        38
  • Mike Williams           6-5      229            1         127          1,526         5
  • Troy Williamson      6-1      203            1           87           1,131         4

Not that hard, was it?

It’s no secret that NFL scouts, personnel executives and general managers are in love with the triangle, the three measurables that ostensibly tell them about a prospect’s ceiling as an NFL player. They are height, weight and speed, the numbers even many fans now follow rigorously during the NFL scouting combine. The triangle has become so important in scouting evaluations that the combine, once considered a boring set of drills and tests, is suddenly must-see TV for true football fanatics.

As the above list indicates, it is not unusual for a college wide receiver with great measurables — big, strong, fast — to be selected in the first round of the draft and then produce an underwhelming pro career. Nor is Wes Welker alone among those who have been overlooked and gone on to produce big pro numbers. Rod Smith was an undrafted free agent who turned into the best Broncos receiver of all time.

So the fact that the triangle is far from an infallible predictor is not breaking news. But Welker is one of the most obvious examples of why. At 5-9, 185 pounds, he was decidedly small. Repeatedly clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and above, he was not exceptionally fast. “Small and slow” will get you crossed off a lot of lists. And frankly, when you see Welker in street clothes, “football player” is not the first thought that comes to mind.

All Welker had going for him was a history of making big plays.

During his junior and senior years at Texas Tech, he gave NFL scouts plenty of notice of what was to come. His uncanny ability to get open produced 86 catches for 1,054 yards as a junior and 97 catches for 1,099 yards as a senior. He scored 31 touchdowns in his college career — 21 as a receiver, eight as a punt returner and two as a rusher.

Nevertheless, Welker was generally viewed by NFL scouts as a college player without the size or athletic ability to make it at the next level.

This is pretty much what college coaches thought four years before. A native of Oklahoma City, Welker attended Heritage Hall High School, where he was named Oklahoma high school player of the year by USA Today and the Daily Oklahoman in 1999. He scored 90 touchdowns in high school playing offense, defense and special teams. Oh, he also kicked field goals.

Nevertheless, he was viewed as just another high school kid without the size or athletic ability to play major college football. It didn’t help that Heritage Hall competed in Class 2A — the second lowest — in a state with six high school football classifications. He thought he’d get a scholarship offer from Tulsa, but it never came. On National Signing Day, he had no offers.

“I was thinking I’d get a scholarship offer somewhere,” Welker told USA Today. “When it didn’t happen when it was supposed to, on signing day, I was pretty hurt by it.”

A week later, Lenny Walls walked away from his scholarship at Texas Tech, choosing Boston College instead. A week after signing day, Mike Leach, the new coach at Texas Tech, offered it to Welker.

“When you saw him, he was slow and not really big,” Leach told USA Today. “But he just had a great sense of the field and how to play football.”

Welker thrived in Leach’s spread offense, but the NFL scouting report was familiar. In fact, he was so far off the league’s radar he didn’t even get an invite to the combine, where they collect the measurables that were working against him anyway.

As an undrafted free agent, his background as a kick returner helped him find work. The Chargers signed him as a returner, then released him after one game when somebody else they liked became available on the waiver wire. Marty Schottenheimer later called it one of his biggest personnel mistakes.

Miami picked him up and kept him for three seasons. The Dolphins used him as a returner and slowly opened up opportunities for him to get on the field as a receiver. In his third season he had 67 catches for 687 yards, offering a glimpse of the production he would make routine in New England.

Welker caught Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s eye with nine catches for 77 yards in a Patriots 20-10 victory over the Dolphins in 2006. Belichick reportedly considered giving him an offer sheet as a restricted free agent that offseason. Instead, he offered Miami a second-round draft pick (and, ultimately, a seventh) for Welker and acquired him that way.

In his first season in New England, Welker teamed with Tom Brady to lead the NFL in catches with 112 for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl.

In six seasons in New England, Welker caught 672 passes (an average of 112 per) for 7,459 yards (1,243 average) and 37 touchdowns. He blew out a knee in the final game of the 2009 season, tearing both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. He came back in 2010 as if it had never happened, catching eight passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener.

After all this proof that expert talent scouts have been wrong repeatedly about Welker, not that much changed when he became a free agent this season. He was far from the most prized receiver on the market.

Mike Wallace, a third-round draft pick by the Steelers in 2009, got a five-year, $60 million free agent contract from Miami, a reported $30 million of it guaranteed. Greg Jennings, a second-round pick by the Packers in 2006, got a five-year deal worth a maximum of $47.5 million from Minnesota.

Welker got a two-year deal worth $12 million from the Broncos. The $6 million annual average puts him behind more than 20 NFL receivers, even though he’s had more catches than any of them over the past six seasons.

So last week I asked him if all these skeptics and doubters over all these years have fueled him.

“They get me out of the bed every morning,” he said.

I’m told they’re trying to come up with a new test at the combine that will somehow capture intangibles that the scouts keep missing in the lengthening list of NFL stars passed over when the blue-chip athletes are selected at the top of the draft. Of course, such a test wouldn’t have helped scouts discover Welker because he wasn’t even invited to the combine.

Now 31 (he’ll turn 32 in May), Welker will never be the league’s highest-paid or most highly-valued receiver. But for a guy who fails every test of the sacred triangle, he’s having a pretty nice career.

New Nuggets or old Nuggets? You decide

Before garbage time set in, which was just after Carmelo Anthony trudged off barely two minutes into the second half, last night’s game at the Pepsi Center looked less like the Nuggets vs. the Knicks than the new Nuggets vs. the old Nuggets.

For significant stretches — including to start the third quarter — Knicks coach Mike Woodson deployed Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin together. This was the nucleus of a Nuggets team that George Karl’s detractors blamed him for failing to get to a championship. Last night, that suggestion looked laughable.

Owing to last year’s lockout, it took slightly more than two years for Anthony to return to the verdict of the people after forcing the trade that seemed so discouraging at the time. If Denver, like Cleveland, could not even keep a star dropped in its lap by the benevolence of the draft (and Joe Dumars), and if a star was required to win a championship, maybe the Nuggets’ failure to win a championship throughout their existence is no accident.

Two years after the demolition, the picture looks vastly different. A few hours before tipoff, I asked Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame player and tell-it-like-it-is analyst for the Madison Square Garden network, which is now the better team.

“I think your team because you’re a younger team and these players have yet to peak,” Frazier said.

“(Wilson) Chandler is still becoming a good player. Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) is a good player. I think you have a better nucleus than the Knicks. We have the superstar in Melo, but the thing is, with New York, I think sometimes that’s why we’re in the predicament that we’re in, because they’re always looking for star quality, whether it be a coach or a player. So they did not have the patience to wait for Gallo, to wait for Chandler and those guys to mature in order to try to get them to the next level. So once they saw that they could get a superstar like Melo, it created a lot of hoopla.

“Say if Gallo and Chandler had remained in New York and they were winning, they still would not have brought the hoopla that Melo brought in, which is what New York is kind of all about. It’s entertainment. It’s having that name, that pizzazz. New York had that when Melo came in, but now the team is kind of languishing. They have not moved up to that next level.

“You look at Denver, you don’t have that star quality, but your nucleus is team-oriented. These guys move the ball. To me, sharing means caring. And when you look at your guys’ play, man, 23 assists, 25 assists a game? That means that these guys like each other. They don’t care who scores. They’re just moving the ball around the perimeter to that open man. Being a former player, that means a lot to me. That tells me a lot about the character of the players on the team and how they relate to each other.”

During player introductions, Melo was greeted loudly but incoherently. More boos than cheers, but far from the distinct, extended syllable Nuggets fans have used to serenade Kobe Bryant ever since a certain incident in Eagle, Colorado. Once the game began, whenever Melo touched the ball, which was often, the crowd settled into the Kobe treatment.

Slowed by a sore knee — he left the Knicks after the game to return to New York and have it drained — Melo was a caricature of himself. A star is always a star in his head, so Melo handled the ball as much as ever, briefly surveyed his repertoire of one-on-one moves, and settled for long bombs too often, particularly because he couldn’t make one.

In just under 22 minutes on his old home floor, he scored nine points on 3-for-12 shooting, including 0-for-5 from long distance. When he walked off the floor for the final time just 2:15 into the second half, his team trailed by 26. The Nuggets outscored the Knicks by 18 while he was on the floor.

“I just didn’t have it,” he said afterward. “I tried, but I think it was time to give it some time and get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. It started tightening up, started stiffening up, there were some movements I couldn’t make. Moving laterally, I felt like I didn’t have any pop, any power. So I tried it in the second half, coming back out after halftime, and I couldn’t move out there. I’m going to go get it drained, get the fluid out, get to the bottom of it quickly, so I can get back on the court.”

This is basically the story of the Knicks’ devolving season, as Frazier explained:

“My concern is their age. I was excited with the acquisitions of (Tyson) Chandler and Rasheed (Wallace) and (Jason) Kidd, but all of those guys are near 40 years of age, so it was always crucial to me that they had to stay healthy. And that has been the problem — they have not been able to stay healthy, those three guys. And now you add in Melo, who’s also hurting, and now the loss of (Amare) Stoudemire, so it’s been very devastating for the team.”

For the record, Tyson Chandler is only 30, although he has a lot of mileage on him. Like Melo, he exited last night’s game early, with a knee bruise.

The Knicks’ main problem against the Nuggets was the same as most teams’ main problem against the Nuggets, especially in Denver: They couldn’t keep up. Although lots of people, including Frazier, say Melo is a better defensive player in New York than he was in Denver, there was little sign of it in his return. The Nuggets went small, as Karl likes to do, and put up a transition highlight reel, outscoring the Knicks in the paint 62-24.

“They were really good in pushing it and we were terrible in getting back,” was Woodson’s succinct summation.

The consensus that you need a superstar, and maybe two superstars, to win an NBA championship has been in place for so long that it is now considered to be something like a fact. General manager Masai Ujiri’s work sculpting a new Nuggets team out of ashes from the old is an attempt to challenge that conventional wisdom.

It’s not just the Melo trade. Ujiri convinced an interim GM in Portland to trade Andre Miller for Raymond Felton, which was just short of theft. And his trade of Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Andre Iguodala has improved the Nuggets’ defense immeasurably.

The Nuggets have won 10 in a row and are now 44-22, but none of it matters until they do something in the postseason. The same conventional wisdom that says you need a star or two says it shows up in the playoffs, when an ensemble cast can’t run and gun anymore.

After his new team’s evisceration of his old team — 117-94 was the final damage — Karl considered the star vs. ensemble meme for the one millionth time this season.

“I think we make a superstar as the game goes on,” he said. “We have a superstar in every game. Sometimes it’s the team, which I think is the best superstar, when it’s an unselfish, 30-assist night, finding the open man. Or a night where defensively we’re just creating so much energy by playing defense. But Ty (Lawson) plays as a stud some nights. Gallo plays as a stud some nights. AI is a hell of a defender almost every night. Our big guys get a lot of things done that they don’t get enough respect for.

“So, you know, OK, we don’t have that going into the game, but we manufacture it because we play well. Like tonight, we were looking at a stat sheet in the middle of the third quarter and nobody had more than five field goals. But we had like eight guys that had three or four or five field goals.

“I just don’t understand. I like my team and I’m proud of them from the standpoint of they would not allow those guys, you know, (with) the drama that went on here . . .  to play with that much pride tonight I thought was first class.”

Most NBA fans in Denver are well past the Melodrama by now. After all, it’s been two years, and frankly, the Nuggets are more fun to watch than they used to be. Last night’s game was a reminder as to why that is. When healthy, Melo is a great individual scorer. Always has been. Whether his career amounts to anything more than that remains to be seen.

“I think it’s time to let everything go,” Karl said. “It was probably too long getting it here and now that it’s over, there’s always going to be the base of both sides. There’s a portion that’s going to dislike Melo and there’s a portion that’s going to love Melo. But the majority of people, I think right now, hopefully, are getting excited about the team that we have at hand. I know we can’t win in the playoffs, but we’ll try very hard to prove some people wrong when the playoffs come.”

Ryan O’Reilly versus the Keystone Kops

Ryan O’Reilly’s gap-toothed grin made him look like a kid . . .

a) . . . in a candy store.

b) . . . on Christmas morning.

c) . . . who had just spanked an accountant in a numbers game.

d) all of the above.

Take your pick. There is no wrong answer.

“Is he the happiest man on Planet Earth currently?” Altitude TV analyst Mark Rycroft asked after O’Reilly took a minute between the first two periods of today’s game at Columbus, his first in the NHL this season, to do a quick TV interview with game analyst Peter McNab.

“It feels great,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a little quick right now. It definitely takes some adjustment.”

As an organization, the Avalanche clearly believes in accounting. Its two general managers since godfather Pierre Lacroix gave up the title — Francois Giguere and Greg Sherman — are both accountants by trade. So the team’s difficulty competing in the salary cap era is not for lack of ability to do the math.

And yet the Avs utterly misjudged the state of financial play in the O’Reilly contract dispute. They seemed to relish making a power play that gave O’Reilly two choices: sign for their number or sit out the season.

A month and a half into the season, along comes Calgary with a two-year, $10 million offer sheet. The Avs were clearly miffed that another franchise handed power back to O’Reilly. In a league where one owner awarded two 13-year contracts simultaneously, the notion that owners will do things contrary to their collective business interests in order to win is not exactly novel.

“If that’s the way they want to do their business, that’s their right,” Sherman sniffed at a rare media availability to confirm Colorado had matched Calgary’s offer.

The Avs could have signed O’Reilly for that number anytime. It was the O’Reilly camp’s proposal for a $5 million annual average that Avalanche management found so objectionable. Its surrogates in the media pointed to Matt Duchene’s two-year, $7 million deal and said paying O’Reilly more than his 2009 draft classmate would turn the team’s salary structure upside down. While it’s true that O’Reilly was the better player last season, when Duchene was hurt, it’s not likely to be true very often.

And yet, confronted by a Calgary offer sheet with terms slightly more onerous than O’Reilly had requested — the $6.5 million second-year salary makes that the qualifying offer to keep O’Reilly’s rights after next season — the Avs took only a few hours of the seven-day window to match the offer.

So the net effect of the Avs’ strategy was to drive a wedge between O’Reilly and the front office, remove him from 40 percent of the lockout-shortened season — and then give him everything he was asking for months ago.

The Avs’ only excuse for this bungle is their disappointment that the Flames would breach owner etiquette by making an offer to a restricted free agent and ruining Colorado’s financial power play. This would suggest an informal agreement among owners not to exercise their rights under the collective bargaining agreement to make such offers. That, in turn, sounds a bit like collusion among the owners.

It would behoove Avalanche management to read up on the collusion cases between baseball and its players’ union in the 1980s. Donald Fehr, then president of the Major League Baseball Players Association and now executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, surely remembers them quite well.

During a five-minute media availability at his locker after reporting to the Avs on Saturday, O’Reilly mentioned several times how happy he was to be back on the ice and back with the fellas. He did not mention the organization.

“I was just sitting at home, got a call from an agent that an offer sheet was available,” he said. “And I wanted to play hockey. So, obviously, I signed it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it would probably take a week or so, but for me it was over quickly. I’m just so excited now to be playing hockey and be back with these guys.”

As if the episode didn’t already have a Keystone Kops feel, Chris Johnston of Rogers SportsNet reported that because O’Reilly had played two pro games in Russia after the NHL season finally began, he would be subject to waivers if any team other than Colorado signed him. In other words, had the Avs elected not to match, Calgary might have surrendered first- and third-round draft picks and then watched Columbus, the NHL’s worst team, snatch O’Reilly off the waiver wire.

Amid much behind-covering over the weekend, Calgary general manager Jay Feaster insisted the Flames had done their due diligence on the applicable provision in the new collective bargaining agreement and insisted they had a case. He also acknowledged that the club’s interpretation was “different than the NHL’s current interpretation,” meaning the doomsday scenario could very well have been the league ruling.

Evidently trying to help prevent one of its GMs from looking sillier than he already did, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declared the question moot after the Avs matched and added the league would have nothing further to say about it.

When I asked O’Reilly about Johnston’s report, he artfully skated around the question.

“I had no idea, and in that situation, I didn’t know,” he said. “I just accepted the offer sheet. I can’t control the past. I don’t know what would have happened. But I’m just glad to be back here with these guys.”

Calgary’s decision to hit Colorado with the offer sheet the day of a game between the teams added yet another subject for the most common question of the day: “Did they do that on purpose?”

Sherman would not be specific about the source of his pique, other than the vague suggestion that making an offer to another team’s restricted free agent is bad form. When I asked coach Joe Sacco if it made the game a little strange — the Avs came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Flames 5-4 with three third-period goals — he replied carefully.

“I guess a little bit, yeah,” he said. “You look at it and they’re your opponent that night and a team that you’re battling with. I would have thought maybe that would give us a little bit extra incentive to play even harder, to play even better. But that’s business. That’s the way it goes in this league here.

“I knew the news (about the Avs matching) right before the puck dropped. Our players didn’t. They weren’t aware of that before the puck dropped. So our focus was strictly on that Calgary game. But it did seem a little odd that you were playing a team that, that day they made that offer to him and you could lose him in the next seven days. But lucky for us, he’s not. He’s here with us.”

Equally strange, it’s possible that O’Reilly and Calgary just saved Sherman’s job. Before the offer sheet, the Avs sat near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Injuries, especially to captain Gabe Landeskog, had hurt, but so had the absence of O’Reilly, the club’s leading scorer with 55 points last season.

If the Avs miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, a watch would commence on the status of both Sherman and Sacco, especially with Joe Sakic currently in training in the front office. The Avs cannot have missed the success that fellow Denver playing legend John Elway has enjoyed while running the Broncos. Elway had considerably more experience, having run an arena league team, but one playoff appearance in five years for the once-proud Avs might be enough to hasten Sakic’s learning curve.

Now, O’Reilly returns just as Landeskog does. With injured defensemen Erik Johnson and Ryan Wilson accompanying the team on its current trip, their return could be imminent as well. If this injection of talent allows the Avs to sneak into the playoff bracket, it might buy Sherman some more time.

The NHL’s official stats will not reflect O’Reilly’s first goal upon his return. It went into his own net in the third period at Columbus today. He was trying to cut off a pass through the crease; instead replays appeared to show that he deflected the puck past Semyon Varlamov into the Colorado net. It was the Blue Jackets’ only goal of regulation and sent the game into overtime, where they scored again and won, 2-1. McNab called it the Avs’ worst effort of the season.

Both the Avs and Flames manage to come out of the O’Reilly episode looking vaguely incompetent. The qualifying offer now required of the Avs to keep their rights to O’Reilly 16 months from now will be especially problematic because they’ll be negotiating new deals with Duchene and Landeskog at the same time.

Of course, if the Avs don’t get better in a hurry, they may be represented by new front office executives by then.

A chess match against a protege

If the Denver Nuggets wanted to dispute the notion that sure, they’re entertaining and fun and everything, but nowhere near ready for prime time, Friday night at a packed Pepsi Center was a good opportunity.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, last season’s Western Conference champions, came in with a record of 42-15. If they’re not going back to the NBA Finals, according to most experts, it’s only because the San Antonio Spurs are.

They brought with them two of the game’s transcendent stars — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And they’re coached by Scott Brooks, a former George Karl assistant who knows all his tricks.

Well, most of them.

The Nuggets entered the game with considerable confidence of their own. They’d gone 20-7 since the first of the year. Point guard Ty Lawson, 25, and forward Danilo Gallinari, 24, seemed on the verge of turning potential into consistent performance. And the Nuggets’ depth, the other side of the no-star coin, was giving them a clear advantage during those periods in every NBA game when reserves take over.

So they came out for the late ESPN tip and immediately dozed off. Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried turned the ball over before the crowd, which is instructed to stand until the home team scores, was permitted to sit down.

Barely two minutes in, Oklahoma City led 9-2 and Karl had seen enough. He removed Faried, his starting power forward and burgeoning media star, 2:28 in. He replaced him with Wilson Chandler, the first move in a chess match with his former protege that went on all night.

“I think it’s a combination of I’m a little tired of the first unit not being defensively responsible early in games,” Karl said afterward. “It’s not only Kenneth; there’s a few other guys on that list. And wanting to be small, wanting to play small against their big. I didn’t think they would take (Serge) Ibaka or (Kendrick) Perkins out of the game three minutes into the quarter. As I substitute later in the quarter, they always can go small and they go small, they like to play small.  We just got lucky on him being especially hot tonight.”

There was that. Chandler did his best Kevin Durant impression, leading the Nuggets with 35 points, including an unconscious six of seven from long distance, one of the Nuggets’ main weaknesses. He also outscored Durant by 10. Westbrook led all scorers with 38.

The move pretty much guaranteed the Nuggets a mismatch somewhere on the perimeter, whether on Chandler or Gallinari, because Ibaka, a shot-blocker, and Perkins, a rebounder, neutralize their main talents when they’re that far from the basket.

“It’s just easier to get a shooting four (big forward) open in basketball than anything else,” Karl said. “Most coaches protect the paint and Wilson is very clever and very aware of how to slip and how to space. I think we add another piece of nine or 10 guys that can help us win a basketball game and Wilson has helped us win two or three already this year.”

This selection among relative equals is both a blessing and a curse. Karl went nine deep Friday night, making spectators out of another handful of capable players — Anthony Randolph, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier. The four he did bring off the bench — Chandler, Corey Brewer, Andre Miller and JaVale McGee — outscored their Oklahoma City counterparts (Kevin Martin, Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher) — by an amazing count of 71-11.

“That’s a great asset to have,” Brooks said of Chandler. “That’s one of the strengths of their team. They’re deep. They have a lot of good players that play, a lot of skill players that can do multiple things and guard multiple players. Thirty-five points, you don’t expect that. Give him credit. He stepped up when the moment was needed and made big shots.”

The Nuggets’ bench dominated the second quarter and carried a 56-47 lead into the locker room at intermission. The starters came out in the third quarter pretty much the way they had come out in the first. Less than two minutes in, the lead was down to two.

Karl substituted even more quickly than he had in the first half, replacing Faried and Gallinari with Chandler and Brewer just 2:04 into the third quarter. The Nuggets took a 10-point lead into the fourth.

Of course, the flip side of depth is too many choices. Up 10, Karl decided to defend the paint with more size, so he reinserted big man Kosta Koufos. He also went to his veteran point guard, Andre Miller, whom he trusts during crunch time.

Focusing on defense sometimes produces runouts, which is what Karl was hoping would happen. It sometimes just produces conservative, halfcourt basketball, in which a team deploying Koufos and Iguodala at the same time is going to have trouble scoring. Which is what happened.

“I thought with the lead, I was hoping to be defensive-minded and I thought if we just make them miss shots, we would run,” Karl said. “And our running game was the reason we were probably somewhat in control of the game.

“We didn’t make them miss enough shots. That’s when I went more offensive-minded . . . I just have so much faith in Andre, but Corey probably played better than Andre down the stretch. I just didn’t feel ready for that one.”

So the lead disappeared. By the last possession of the game, the score was tied at 103. Karl called timeout with 17.6 seconds remaining. The play called for Lawson to dribble out most of the clock, then make a decision.

“When we give Oklahoma City any time to shoot, (Durant and Westbrook) are big shot-makers,” Lawson explained. “We didn’t want to give them a chance. We either wanted overtime or just win the game right there at the end of regulation.”

“Ty had an option,” Karl said. “We were trying to get a matchup maybe for Ty or Gallo. They switched well, they switched everything and then Ty had the space to play and he did.”

The Thunder switched out ace perimeter defender Thabo Sefolosha onto Lawson, who dribbled just outside the three-point line until the final seconds. Sefolosha gave him enough room to make sure he couldn’t dart around him. That was all Lawson needed.

He used the room to step just inside the arc and launch what was officially recorded as a 23-foot jumper over Sefolosha’s outstretched hand. It slipped through the net like a soft breeze. The game clock showed two-tenths of a second remaining. Lawson did a back-pedaling Mark Jackson shimmy.

“We switched and he made a tough shot,” Brooks said. “He made a contested shot over one of our best defenders. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. A lot of times we’ve made that stop. Give them credit. He stepped up and made a shot and it was a tough shot.”

The Nuggets pulled within a game and a half of the Memphis Grizzlies for the fourth playoff seed in the West and home-court advantage in the first round. That would be nice considering Karl’s team has won 10 in a row and 25 of 28 overall at the Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets are now 2-1 against both the Thunder and Grizzlies, two of the four teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. They are 1-1 against the Spurs and Clippers, the other two.

Yes, those are regular season results. And yes, the Nuggets’ fast-paced, take-it-to-the-rim style — they lead the NBA with more than 57 points a game in the paint — is harder to sustain in the postseason. The fourth quarter Friday was an illustration of how their offense sometimes stalls when forced to play out of half-court sets.

Nevertheless, they found a way to match up with a team considered their superior and they found a guy to make the big shot at the end, a guy their critics say they don’t have.

They’re now 38-22 with the confidence that they can play with anybody. All Karl has to do is figure out who’s playing well and who’s not — and do it before the game gets out of hand. For the third-youngest roster in the NBA, that’s not too bad.

CarGo: Rockies need an ace

Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who hit his first home run of the spring today and drove in three runs, likes the feel of Rockies camp so far this year for at least two reasons:

First, last year’s many walking wounded are back on the field.

Second, three of those returnees profile as the team’s top starting pitchers, giving the Rocks a chance to have what they lacked last year — a stopper.

“Every team needs an ace,” CarGo said this week on the Dave Logan Show. “Obviously, Jeremy (Guthrie) was that guy last year that we all were expecting and things didn’t work out well for him. That’s why he got traded.

“But as a team you always want to have that one guy that whenever you’re going to struggle, you know that guy is going to stop everything. He’s going to bring his No. 1 game. Obviously, that was not the case for us so that’s why we had the worst year in franchise history. When you’re losing, you want to have that guy who always breaks the streak and starts a new one of winning.”

So who does Gonzalez see stepping into that role this season?

“We have three really good guys, and hopefully they can all bring the A game,” he said. “That’s (Jorge) De La Rosa, who has more experience, and (Juan) Nicasio and (Jhoulys) Chacin. They have pretty good stuff, but it’s difficult when you don’t have those guys, when they’re hurt. That’s why we all feel pretty good, because we have those guys back and we all feel confident this year.”

De La Rosa, who led the Rockies in wins with 16 the last time they made the playoffs, was expected back from Tommy John surgery in June last season. Instead, he didn’t make it back until the end of September, when he made three meaningless starts long after the season was lost.

Chacin, an 11-game winner in 2011, managed only 14 starts in 2012, going 3-5, before he was sidelined by a nerve problem in his shoulder.

And Nicasio, who made a miraculous recovery from a broken neck in 2011, got in just 11 starts in 2012 before a knee injury ended his season.

Another returning mainstay is shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who appeared in only 47 games last season before a groin injury took him out of the lineup for the rest of the year. Without Tulo to protect him in the batting order, CarGo’s offensive production slipped noticeably in the second half of the season.

“For me, he’s the most important player on our team,” Gonzalez said. “He’s the leader. Not having him in the lineup hurts a lot. As the third hitter, I always want to see that guy hitting behind me because he’s really good offensively. And defensively he’s in the middle of the field; he’s the one who takes care of the whole infield. It’s a huge change when he’s in the lineup.”

Acquired by the Rockies in a trade with Oakland on Nov. 10, 2008, CarGo is already on his third Colorado manager. Clint Hurdle, the skipper when he arrived, was replaced early in the 2009 season by Jim Tracy. Tracy resigned at the end of last season and was replaced by first-time manager Walt Weiss. He’s joined by first-year hitting coach Dante Bichette, who replaced Carney Lansford.

“They played for the Rockies before,” Gonzalez said. “They know what it takes to be in a World Series and to be in the playoffs. They were great players and they’re helping a lot of young guys. Obviously, we have a lot of young guys on our team and we feel pretty comfortable where we are right now.”

Even CarGo was limited to 135 games last year by a nagging hamstring injury, so you’ll forgive him if he’s convinced that staying on the field is the key to a turnaround season in 2013.

“The No. 1 thing for me this year is just to try to stay healthy,” Gonzalez said. “My best year was in 2010 when I got almost 600 at-bats. I was in the lineup every day. That’s a huge difference. Being hurt at the end of (last) year cost me a little bit. It changed the lineup. So that’s the No. 1 thing for me.

“And then I always focus on getting better on every single aspect. This year I worked really hard on my speed, just try to get on base and just try to get that extra base every time to get more opportunities for my guys hitting behind me, especially having Tulowitzki and (Michael) Cuddyer and (Todd) Helton back. That will create more runs and that will help the team to win some more games.”

There’s been a lot of discussion since last season around the Rockies’ front office and its various unorthodox initiatives, among them installing executive Bill Geivett in the clubhouse and mandating that Tracy operate a four-man pitching rotation with limited pitch counts. Some players didn’t think much of these innovations, but Gonzalez wasn’t one of them.

“You know what, when you have a bad year and when things go wrong, you have to try a lot of different things, and that’s what the Rockies are doing,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that. What they’re doing right now is just to help the ball club. Hopefully this year is a better year, we get to the postseason and you’re going to see a lot of different things.”

It’s early, of course, but spring is the time for optimism. Healthy for now, the Rocks are feeling better about themselves.

“The team looks great,” CarGo said. “We have a lot of good, important players back. It’s a good thing to see those guys healthy and ready to compete.”