Rockies raking, rolling in early going

So let’s review the stats after the first week of the 2013 baseball season. The Colorado Rockies rank:

— 1st in the major leagues in runs scored with 39.

— 1st in the major leagues in home runs with 13.

— 1st in the major leagues in total bases with 121.

— 1st in the major leagues in RBI with 38.

— 1st in the major leagues in batting average at .333.

— 1st in the major leagues in on-base percentage at .377.

— 1st in the major leagues in slugging percentage at .588.

— And, therefore, 1st in the major leagues in OPS at .945.

Well, sure, you say, when they’re healthy, they can rake. What about the pitching?

Maybe most remarkable of all, the Rocks rank fifth in the major leagues in earned-run average at 2.80 after playing three games in the top offensive park in baseball last year (Coors Field) and three in the No. 7 offensive park (Miller Park in Milwaukee).

Individually, Michael Cuddyer ranks second in the National League in batting, at .450; Troy Tulowitzki ranks fifth, at .421. Dexter Fowler ranks second in home runs, with four; Wilin Rosario is tied for third with three. Cuddyer and Tulo are tied for third in RBI with seven.

As a result, the Rocks are 5-1 and tied for first place in the National League West.

Can all this last? Of course not. In fact, the hitting numbers should begin to moderate this week as the Rockies play six games in the pitcher-friendly ballparks of San Francisco (the No. 29 offensive park in 2012) and San Diego (No. 26).

Still, through six games a year ago, the Rocks were 2-4 and already 3 1/2 games out of first place. So you’ll forgive Carlos Gonzalez, batting .360, which ranks eighth on the team, a little smile.

“The things that we’ve been working on since spring training are working,” he said after Sunday’s 9-1 victory over the Padres completed a series sweep and extended the Rocks’ winning streak to five. “Our confidence level is good. Obviously, we have a lot of games left, but it’s always good to start this way.”

What, specifically, was he referring to?

“Well, pitchers are throwing strikes,” he said. “They have that confidence. They know if they throw strikes they’re going to go deep in the game. Pitchers, all they want to do is get a ‘W.’ That’s why they pitch every four or five days. Right now, they’re throwing strikes, they believe in the guys playing defensively behind them, and we all know if they do their job we’re going to be able to score some runs and win ballgames.”

In other words, while last year’s 75-pitch limit for starters is gone, Rockies pitchers know that given the organizational data on pitching injuries, they cannot nibble around the strike zone early in the game and expect to be on the mound long enough to get credit for a victory.

In the first six games, the Rocks’ starter has pitched at least six innings five times. The highest pitch count so far is Jhoulys Chacin’s 99 on Sunday, but the starter has thrown at least 94 pitches in four of the six games.

In four spring training starts this year, Chacin gave up 15 runs and 25 hits in 16 innings, an ERA of 8.44. In two starts since the season began, he’s given up two runs and nine hits in 13 1/3 innings, an ERA of 1.35.

Following Sunday’s win, I asked him what the main difference was.

“I think my focus,” he said. “I’ve been more focused. Just don’t worry about anything and just make my pitch. That’s something I’ve really been working on with (pitching coach) Jimmy Wright. Just try to get my rhythm when I’m pitching and make my pitches down and just get ground balls.”

Indeed, 15 of the 20 outs Chacin recorded against the Padres came on ground balls. Overall, according to baseballreference.com, of the balls hit in fair territory off Chacin, 16 were on the ground and only seven in the air.

Despite the unimpressive spring numbers, first-year manager Walt Weiss never wavered in making Chacin his Opening Day starter.

“I try not to put too much stock into spring training,” Weiss said. “It’s important to get your work in and all that stuff, find a rhythm to the game, but you don’t want to put too much stock in it. I know Jhoulys; he’s a good pitcher. He’s got a great change-up. He’s another one of those guys that seems like he’s always in control of the at-bat. It never really gets too far away from him. I have confidence in his ability.”

The Rocks have emphasized various elements of pitching over the years as they’ve tried to figure out a formula suited to Coors Field. They’ve tried big breaking balls, they’ve tried power arms, they’ve tried to emphasize lateral movement over the downward breaks that can disappear at elevation. In spring training this year, they kept it simple.

“I think they’re doing the things that we talked about this spring,” Weiss said. “Guys are less concerned about east and west and are really thinking about pitching to the bottom of the zone and putting the ball on the ground. You saw (Jon) Garland do it (Saturday) night. That’s kind of who he is, but being able to minimize damage like that with a bases-loaded, no-out situation, to give up one run, that’s really impressive. Jeff (Francis) was able to do it to a lesser extent the other day, minimize some damage. I think these guys are buying in that when you’re at the bottom of the zone and you stay in decent counts, you can be very effective.”

Oddly, the pitch count edicts from the front office that may have contributed to Jim Tracy’s resignation as manager at the end of last season have been relaxed for Weiss. Still, he hasn’t let any starter reach 100 pitches yet.

“I’m aware of it, particularly early on,” Weiss said. “And we’ve got, what, four of our starters missed a lot of time last year. So I certainly am aware of it and it’s a factor. But I haven’t had to push that button early or anything. Some of these guys have been in the 90s and I think that’s a good place to be, particularly for the guys that had some issues last year physically.”

Of the five starters, only Jorge De La Rosa, who makes his second start tonight in San Francisco, has an ERA above 3.00. Three relievers — Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt and Edgmer Escalona — have combined to throw 9 2/3 innings in nine appearances without giving up a run.

“And the other thing is, pretty much everybody who was out last year, they’re playing again,” CarGo pointed out. “Tulowitzki, Cuddyer, (Todd) Helton, guys who can do a lot of things offensively. We’re going to score runs. Everybody knows that. Everybody understands that this team will score runs. That’s what we’ve been doing, and the pitchers are doing a great job and that’s why we’re getting good results every day.”

Even the Rocks’ “B” lineup, which produced a 5-22 record on Sundays a year ago, is raking. Four starters — Tulowitzki, Cuddyer, Helton and Josh Rutledge — got the day off in Colorado’s first Sunday game this year. The team still produced nine runs and 15 hits, including seven hits by substitutes Eric Young Jr., (two), Jordan Pacheco (one), Reid Brignac (one) and Jonny Herrera (three).

“They’re all capable of that,” Weiss said. “A couple lineups we’ve thrown out there like that, one in Milwaukee, guys have produced. It’s a good roster. You kill two birds with one stone. You can give some guys a break and you keep the other guys involved. Regardless of who we throw out there, I think it’s a tough lineup to get through.”

It’s way too early to say much more than the Rocks have given Colorado reason for hope, but that’s a pretty good gift from a team written off before the season even began by many “experts,” both locally and nationally.

“It’s nice to get off to a good start, especially, you know, last year was a tough year,” Weiss said. “So it’s nice to put some of those demons behind us right away. We felt all spring like we have a good club. I don’t think a lot of people feel the same way on the outside, but we’re very confident in the fact that we have a good club.”

About Dave Krieger

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

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