Category Archives: pitching at Coors Field

Tracy: Rockies have been through ‘living hell’

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.


Curse of the short starts continues

If these starts get any shorter, they’re going to have to come up with another name for them. Maybe mini-starts, in the spirit of miniskirts and minicomputers.

For example, the relief pitcher who started Friday’s game for the Rockies actually went deeper than the starter who began Saturday’s, although that’s not saying much.

The Rocks were already leading the National League in innings pitched by a bullpen, so they didn’t really need a freak injury to a starting pitcher one day after pitching a game by committee. But that’s what happened.

Juan Nicasio strained his left knee trying to field Elian Herrera’s single up the middle with two out in the second inning Saturday. He had to come out, leaving the bullpen to add 7 1/3 innings to the nine it pitched Friday and the league-leading 173 1/3 it had pitched through 51 games coming in. In fact, that total didn’t include Josh Outman’s 3 1/3 Friday, since he was technically a starter for a day.

“There it is and you’ve got to deal with it again,” manager Jim Tracy said. “It’s not something that you dwell a whole lot about. I think the dwelling part comes afterwards. You sit down at your desk and you start thinking about tomorrow already and where are things going to go and how will you handle it if it doesn’t present itself in the way that you want it to.

“But we’re hopeful that Alex White goes out there (Sunday) and pitches the best game he’s pitched since he put a Rockies uniform on, because I personally feel he’s getting closer to doing that. We’ll see what happens, but I’m very hopeful that we get a very solid start from Alex White tomorrow and he gives us a chance to win the series.”

The Rocks made pitching largely irrelevant by scoring 53 runs in the first five games of the current homestand, winning all five and pulling within seven games of .500. Saturday, the Dodgers’ Aaron Harang baffled them, giving up one run in six innings, so Nicasio’s short start doomed them.

Carlos Gonzalez, who had driven in 11 runs over his previous six games, came up with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, lifted a harmless foul pop fly to Herrera off the third base line and slammed his bat to the ground in disgust. When Michael Cuddyer followed with a ground ball to second, the Rocks’ best opportunity was gone in a game they ended up losing 6-2.

“It was just frustration of the moment,” said Gonzalez, who leads the Rocks in pretty much every offensive category. “It was a pitch out of the strike zone. Obviously I make a wrong swing. I should have taken that pitch and taken it to a deeper count and just wait for my pitch and when it shows up, put a good barrel on it. But I did the opposite thing in that situation.”

Friday, the Rocks won the series opener against the National League West leaders by pounding Dodgers pitching for 13 runs. But they pitched the entire game out of the bullpen after releasing 49-year-old Jamie Moyer earlier in the week. They used Outman, Carlos Torres, Adam Ottavino, Matt Belisle and Esmil Rogers.

Saturday, they sent Torres down and recalled Rex Brothers, which gave them one more fresh arm. When Nicasio departed, Tracy went to Josh Roenicke, Matt Reynolds, Brothers and Rogers again. Roenicke, Reynolds and Brothers each pitched at least two innings, so they are probably unavailable today, barring an emergency. The club would also probably like to avoid calling on Rogers, who has pitched two days in a row.

“You come in here tomorrow morning and you sit down with your pitching people and we try to sort out who’s available and who’s not available,” Tracy said. “You don’t like to have too many days like that, but tomorrow morning will be one of those mornings.”

Nicasio said he wants to make his next start, but Tracy said the club would know more about his condition Sunday. As Nicasio left the clubhouse Saturday, he was limping noticeably.

“Seeing Nicasio only pitching one inning is not going to help a lot,” CarGo said. “But injuries are a part of the game, so all we can do is just hope he can get better and just get him back soon.”

The Rocks can still take the series and make it six out of seven on the homestand by winning today. But after consecutive starts of 3 1/3 and 1 2/3 innings, they’ll need White to give them more than a mini-start.


Dan O’Dowd unplugged

Whether things are going well, badly or somewhere in between, I try to touch base with Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd at roughly the one-third and two-thirds marks of each season to take his pulse on the team. I’ve known O’Dowd for more than a decade now, and whether I was at the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post or 850 KOA, he’s always accommodated these requests for his time.

The one-third mark, the Rockies’ 54th game, falls on June 4 this year, which also happens to be the first day of the baseball draft, so I hit him up a few days early and we spoke this morning.

The state of the Rockies is no secret. They rank third in the National League in runs, second in home runs and second in OPS, which is the sum of on-base percentage and slugging percentage (the acronym stands for On-base Plus Slugging). They’re a good offensive club with a chance to be better than that, although their situational hitting has at times left something to be desired.

They rank last in the league in earned-run average (5.18), more than three-quarters of a run higher than the next-worst team. The combined ERA of their starters (5.80) is more than a run higher than the next-worst starting staff. On the bright side, their overworked bullpen has a better ERA (4.20) than those of four other NL teams, suggesting it might actually be pretty good if the starters did their jobs.

The Rocks have 15 quality starts (a starter throws at least six innings and gives up three earned runs or fewer) out of 48 games, the fewest in baseball. They are the only team in baseball not to have shut out an opponent all season. In 48 tries, they do not have a complete game by a starting pitcher. They lead baseball in blown saves with 11.

In short, their pitching has been frightful. And that’s chiefly why they go into tonight’s home game against Houston 10 games below .500 at 19-29.

They stand fourth in the NL West, 12.5 games behind the Dodgers, who have the best record in baseball. They have a chance to attack that deficit this weekend when L.A. makes its second trip of the season to Coors Field. The Rocks took two of three from the Dodgers on the first visit, April 30-May 2, but that seems like a long time ago, perhaps because it immediately preceded the Atlanta series in which everything fell apart.

The Rocks were 11-11 in April. So far, they are 8-18 in May. Two of their starting pitchers, Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Guthrie, have spent time on the disabled list. Chacin is still there. Another, Jorge De La Rosa, has been on the DL since last summer, when he underwent Tommy John surgery. He is currently making rehab starts at Triple-A Colorado Springs. A fourth starter, Drew Pomeranz, was demoted to the Springs to work on his mechanics and get his velocity back. At the moment, the starting staff consists of Guthrie, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer and three rookies — Christian Friedrich, Juan Nicasio and Alex White.

I began by asking O’Dowd an open-ended question about his evaluation of the first two months of the season.

“Honestly, a couple things,” he said. “Leaving spring training, I thought a lot of things would have to go right from a pitching standpoint for us to get out of the gate real well. I had hoped that we could play .500 or close to for the first two, three months of the season until our young pitching began to mature. Obviously, that happened in the month of April. Obviously, a lot of things have gone wrong in the month of May.

“I would say, looking at it objectively, I like our position-player club a ton. I think it’s probably one of the better position-player clubs we’ve ever put on a field because of its depth and versatility and the quality of the players. I think (Wilin) Rosario, (Jordan) Pacheco, (Tyler) Colvin, (Eric) Young give us a really nice blend of youth to go with our veterans. I think CarGo and Tulo are going to end up having monster years. I think (Michael) Cuddyer has been a solid addition. So I think that’s played out even better than I could have hoped for.

“But our starting pitching has been so bad at times that it’s really exposed our bullpen. I think if we got any kind of starting pitching, our bullpen would actually be one of the strengths of our club.

“I banked on some things which, obviously, I’m accountable for, with Guthrie and Chacin and hoping De La Rosa would get back around this time of year, this week or next. Guthrie’s been bad and Chacin got hurt and De La Rosa’s probably still four or five starts away from helping us. So we’re in a tough box relying on a lot of kids right now that have ability, but it looks like there’s just a significant gap between their potential and their performance right now.”

I asked him for a diagnosis on Guthrie, acquired from Baltimore in February in exchange for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. Over his previous three seasons, Guthrie threw 617 1/3 innings for the Orioles with an ERA of 4.39. So far this season, he’s thrown just 40 2/3 for the Rocks, missing a handful of starts because of a freak bicycle accident, with an ERA of 5.31. On the road, he’s 2-1 with a 2.22 ERA. At Coors Field, he’s 0-2 with a 9.92 ERA.

(Full disclosure: I’ve followed the Orioles for years and admired Guthrie as a horse who took the ball every fifth day for a team that was truly awful for most of his stay. I wholeheartedly endorsed this trade.)

“I don’t know,” O’Dowd said. “I know I’m supposed to have all the answers. I went back over our process with this one. I know Jason Hammel’s pitched well, but I’ve got a long list of Coors Field bounce-backs, so that doesn’t surprise me. Guys leave here and they pitch much better than they pitched here.

“Four years of 200-plus innings, pitching in the American League East, actually getting his brains beat in at times, you’d think that would prepare him for the gauntlet that he’d go through here at times. I think the freakish injury certainly didn’t help. He’s three starts back from that now.

“He hasn’t even looked close to being the pitcher that we scouted over a long period of time. That one’s been a little perplexing to me to be frank with you, especially the lack of strike throwing. He’s always been a guy that threw strikes and pitched innings. Both he and Chacin, I thought that we’d have guys that would have 4.5 to 4.8 ERAs, but I thought we’d get 200 innings out of each of them, which would then take some pressure off the group of young starters that would end up stepping forward, and, again, hoping that De La Rosa would come back.

“So we’ve got to tread some water here and make up some ground because I think with the starting pitching, if we can just be serviceable — I mean, we’re going to go through some moments when we struggle offensively, too, but I think for the most part it’s a club that’s going to put up some runs.”

I mentioned that Guillermo Moscoso, obtained in January from Oakland along with left-hander Josh Outman in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith, had a similar disconnect, going from very reasonable numbers as a starter with the A’s (8-10, 3.38 ERA in 21 starts in 2011) to horrendous numbers before being sent down by the Rocks (0-1, 11.57).

Prior to the installation of the humidor at Coors Field in 2002, the Rockies’ ERA at home averaged more than a full run higher than their ERA on the road. Since the humidor was installed, that differential has come down to less than half a run. This year, it is back up over a run a game. The Rocks’ ERA at Coors is 5.71. On the road, it is 4.55.

So I asked O’Dowd if the park might be having an outsized effect on the numbers of pitchers coming from other places.

“For some reason, this year it’s playing much differently,” he said. “I wish I knew the answer for that. Quite honestly, when the schedule came out and I saw two nine-game home stands to open up the season, I was concerned. We’ve never had that.

“Sometimes, with particular weather patterns, you can survive that. But I was concerned about the length of those home stands. Honestly, we were doing fine up until those two Atlanta games (May 4-5) and we have not played well since then. We’ve played better this last week, but starting on that Friday night against Atlanta when we had that six-run lead and coughed it up and then we did the same thing again on Saturday, we really have never recovered from a pitching standpoint.

“If you remember the way the ballpark used to play, where pitchers would try to avoid contact and then make a quality pitch and then get hit and then the wheels would start to turn mentally, it seems to be that situation again. I don’t think you’re seeing as many fluke home runs but, boy, you’re seeing some balls really driven off pitches that, quite honestly, aren’t that bad. Whatever mistakes we’ve made have just been absolutely hammered.

“Atlanta scored 19 runs on 42 hits in three games here. They had 14 extra-base hits, seven of them home runs. And then they went to Chicago and they scored four runs on 19 hits in three games at Wrigley. They had four extra-base hits and one home run. So that’s always going to be the case. You’re always going to have moments like that.

“But it’s not playing the same as it has over the last couple of years. Now, we’ve pitched (poorly), too, so that has certainly contributed to it. But the first game of the doubleheader the other day, Nicasio threw a fastball down and in at 95 (mph) to Carlos Lee and he hit a rocket into left-center and I went, ‘Gosh darn, I don’t know how that happened right there.'”

So I asked what fans have asked me: Is the humidor turned on? Did the Rocks forget to pay the electric bill?

“Oh, it’s the same setting and everything,” O’Dowd said. “Honestly, I wish we could turn that sucker up at times.”

I mentioned that far from the bounce-back effect we’ve seen with Hammel and Lindstrom in Baltimore, Ubaldo Jimenez has a higher ERA in Cleveland than he had in Colorado. Although the Indians’ massive run support has provided him with a respectable won-loss record of 5-4, his ERA is 5.79. Last year, his ERA in Cleveland after the trade was 5.10. Pitching for the Rockies, his 2011 ERA before the trade was 4.68. In 2010, his best year, it was 2.88.

“I know I’m taking a pounding, some of it justified, but man, where would we be if we had held onto Ubaldo?” O’Dowd asked. “Seriously, what would we have done?

“Right now, we’ve got (Joseph) Gardner pitching well in Double-A, (Matt) McBride is fourth in the (Pacific Coast League) in hitting, Pomeranz is a work in progress and with all White’s struggles, his numbers are better than Jimenez, pitching half his games in Coors Field!”

(White’s ERA is slightly higher, but his walk/strikeout ratio and baserunners-per-inning (WHIP) numbers are substantially better.)

The Rocks obtained all four in exchange for Jimenez.

Between the injuries and spontaneous implosions to veterans who were supposed to bridge the gap to the young pitching, the Rocks are force-feeding major league innings to young starters who are learning on the job. The club has little choice now but to ride those kids, for better or worse.

“I knew this was going to be a transition year,” O’Dowd said. “I never expected Jamie Moyer would last till June. We just looked at him as a guy to give us probably 10 starts at most until we could transition to someone else. But when you’re in the middle now trying to develop a pitching staff, there’s going to be good times and bad times. There’s a ton of ability here and there’s depth to it. We’ve just got to figure a way to get them over the hump, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Moscoso has four quality starts for the Sky Sox in his last four outings through May 24. I asked if it was time to give him another shot with the big league club.

“Yeah, we’re going to give him another shot,” O’Dowd said. “We’re not looking for miracles, we’re really just looking for somebody to come up here and throw consistent strikes. And I think we’re going to stretch Outman out a little bit, too. We’re going to back him up on Friday with Moyer and begin to stretch him out. Though we think he’s most suited to the bullpen, he does look like a duck out of water right now.

“One of the more discouraging things to me has been what’s happened with (Rex) Brothers, because other than the (Jonny) Venters guy in Atlanta, this kid should be one of the more dominant left-handed back-end guys in the game. And his meltdown this year was almost unexplainable to me, to be frank with you. Last season, he gave up one run in his last 16 innings. Started out this year OK, and then it’s been absolutely downhill ever since.”

I asked if it might be a product of overuse. Brothers made 22 appearances in the Rocks’ first 38 games before being sent down. On the other hand, pitching situationally in some of those appearances, he threw a total of 15.1 innings and never more than one inning per game.

“I don’t think so,” O’Dowd said. “I think it’s all mental. I think the kid had such a high expectation for himself as it relates to working into our closer role, I think he just got mentally locked up. I think he was certainly tired at times, but no, I think he’s more mentally tired than physically tired.”

On the bright side, in three outings for the Sky Sox, Brothers has pitched five innings and given up one run on three hits.

With three-fifths of the starting staff learning on the job, I asked if the veteran position players acquired during the offseason, particularly 36-year-old second baseman Marco Scutaro and 35-year-old catcher Ramon Hernandez, were now a mismatch for the young staff.

“I think there’s a misconception about this,” O’Dowd said. “We don’t have a young second baseman to turn to. I wasn’t comfortable going with Chris Nelson and didn’t really have any other alternatives. Jonny Herrera’s not an everyday player. The industry is bereft of second basemen to go get. So I don’t know really what our alternative would have been there.”

(The Rockies’ projected second baseman of the future, Josh Rutledge, turned 23 last month. He is batting .279 at Double-A Tulsa and looks to be at least a year away.)

“In Hernandez’s case, he was brought in for Rosario. He had just got done tutoring (Devin) Mesoraco in Cincinnati for two years, and we thought that Hernandez would be the perfect complement to Rosario as relates to Rosario’s development at the big-league level.

“So both things weren’t designed necessarily to put a championship club on the field. Heck, at the end of this year I’d like to bring Scutaro back. In Hernandez’s case, we feel we’ve got a young guy in Rosario who’s certainly got some rough edges we’ve got to work through and we feel we’ve got a guy here who’s a perfect mentor to him. (Chris) Iannetta would have never accepted that.”

I asked if veteran Will Nieves, recently called up to replace the injured Hernandez, might be a good complement to Rosario going forward.

“He could be. Same type of guy,” O’Dowd said. “I thought (assistant GM) Bill Geivett did a great job, he and (player development director Jeff) Bridich, in bringing Nieves back here. I think we’ve got good catching. That’s the shame of it. I really do think this is one of the better position-player clubs as far as how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

I asked how long it might be before Pomeranz gets another shot at the big-league level.

“Last night (Tuesday, May 29), he threw six innings, gave up nine hits, five of them were hit hard — I watched the game on MiLB.TV — he didn’t walk anybody and punched out seven. I thought he looked much more athletic. But we’re not going to bring him back here until we get his delivery back to the way he looked in Cleveland, not the way he looked here, because this was a 92 to 94, 95 (mph) guy throwing 88 to 90 here. He threw 91 last night, so it’s creeping back up. I’d love to have him back in the rotation by the beginning of July.”

And Chacin?

“Chacin’s injury, we got good news last week on it, which was it was not an artery problem like (Aaron) Cook. He has a nerve issue. Every time he went to cock and throw, there’s a nerve that runs right under your clavicle that was really almost cutting everything off on him. So we think we’ve found what was wrong, but now getting it right, I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I’m hoping we get him back right after the All-Star break, if he’s one of our better guys at that point. Eventually, we hope some of these kids start stepping up.”

I noted that O’Dowd is taking a lot of heat from unhappy fans.

“I’m used to that,” he said. “It’s my 30th year doing this. If I get (fired) at the end of the year, then it happens. There’s nothing I can do about that. I believe in what we’re doing. This is painful. I get it. But I like our players, I like what’s going on in our clubhouse, I like the ownership some of our players are taking, I like the lessons some of them are learning.

“So I think a lot of good things are going on. I never expected Pacheco to turn into this. Rosario to me is way ahead of schedule. EY has completely turned his career around, which has forced Dexter to step up or Dexter knows he’s going out. And I have to tell you, I couldn’t be more pleased with the LeMahieu-Colvin deal for (Ian) Stewart.

“Colvin, that kid can hit a fastball. He’s still got to learn to hit a breaking ball and change-up, but he absolutely can hit anybody’s fastball.

“I know it looks like crap. I just think we’re positioned really well. I think the Pomeranzes and the Whites and the Friedrichs and the Nicasios, I think a year from now we could have one of the best starting rotations in our division and it could last for a long time. If I don’t survive, then whoever’s going to take my job is going to be in a really good situation.”


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.


Rockies’ pitching staff in disarray

Actually, disarray may be too mild a word for the state of the Rockies’ pitching staff after it blew early leads of 5-0 and 6-0 on consecutive nights against the Braves, scoring seventeen runs in two games and losing them both.

“That’s the worst game of the year for us,” manager Jim Tracy said after the second, Saturday night’s 13-9 throwback to the early days of baseball at altitude.

By the time it was over, the Rocks’ team earned-run average had ballooned to 5.06, worst in the National League. Esmil Rogers, who allowed five earned runs in an inning and a third, saw his ERA soar to 8.36. Edgmer Escalona is at 8.53.

“Our pitching, as I mentioned last night, it’s got to be better than what we’re seeing right now,” Tracy said in the understatement of the soggy evening at Coors Field. “It’s unacceptable. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

Generally inclined to defend his players to a fault, Tracy was critical of Rogers and Rex Brothers for lack of consistency out of the bullpen, just as he had torched Jhoulys Chacin and Guillermo Moscoso recently for short, ineffective starts.

And it’s not as though all this trouble is in the rear view. Before Saturday night’s debacle, the club was forced to abandon plans to bring Jeremy Guthrie off the disabled list for Tuesday’s game in San Diego, meaning Tracy had to tell reporters he didn’t know who would start either Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s game there. At the moment, he has three healthy starters, one of whom is 49 years old and couldn’t hold leads of 6-0 and 8-3 on Saturday.

That, of course, would be Jamie Moyer, who became the oldest player to get a hit in a big league game Saturday since 50-year-old Minnie Minoso got one for the White Sox in 1976. Heartwarming as this tale is, Moyer is trying to get batters out at Coors Field with a “fastball” clocked at 77 miles per hour, which is slower than most major league changeups. Saturday, he managed to do it for four innings before everything unraveled.

“The wheels fell off,” he said afterward. “Solo home runs usually don’t beat you, but they just chipped away, chipped away. I couldn’t get an out in the sixth. I don’t have an answer for you right now.”

After giving up two solo homers and a single to open the sixth, Moyer departed with an 8-5 lead and one runner aboard. By the time Rogers was finished pouring kerosene on the brush fire, the score was tied and the bases were loaded. By the time Brothers departed two outs later, the Braves led 12-8.

The fact that the Rocks are counting on Moyer at all is evidence of the implosion of their plans for this year’s pitching staff. Coming off Tommy John surgery and old enough to be most of his teammates’ father, Moyer was a non-roster invitee to spring training, the longest of long shots. The Rockies had nine starters ahead of him when pitchers and catchers reported in February.

After trading Ubaldo Jimenez for three pitchers from Cleveland, Seth Smith for two pitchers from Oakland and Chris Iannetta for a pitcher from the L.A. Angels, it looked as though they’d have enough starters to staff both the big league club and the Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs. Instead, it’s as if they all caught some awful, contagious disease.

Josh Outman, one of the pitchers from Oakland, got hurt. Guillermo Moscoso, the other pitcher from Oakland, was ineffective. So were Tyler Chatwood, the pitcher from the Angels, and Alex White, one of the pitchers from Cleveland. Only one of these four had to pitch well enough to bump Moyer from consideration. None of them did.

Jhoulys Chacin, the Rockies’ winningest pitcher last year, showed up out of shape and pitched to an ERA of 7.30 before being shipped out. Guthrie, the fitness freak obtained from Baltimore who rides a bicycle to the ballpark, had some sort of chain problem that crashed his bike, leaving him with a shoulder injury and a trip to the disabled list.

So here they are, with two healthy starters under the age of forty-nine — Juan Nicasio and rookie Drew Pomeranz — and just nine quality starts in twenty-six games, fewest in the National League. The bullpen, which started well, has been called upon way too much and is already fried. There are no quick fixes, either. If there were, you can bet the Yankees and Red Sox would have bought them up already.

The good news is Nicasio and Pomeranz pitch the next two. Each went at least six innings in his last start, which makes them marathon men in comparison to the rest of the Rockies’ staff.

The bad news is nobody is quite sure what happens after that. Christian Friedrich, the Rocks’ first-round draft pick in 2008, last pitched at Triple-A on Friday, which would make the timing right for Wednesday’s start in San Diego. He wasn’t exactly lights out, giving up five runs, three earned, in five and two-thirds innings, but the Rocks don’t have a lot of options. His overall ERA of 3.00 in thirty innings isn’t bad, particularly for the Pacific Coast League.

White last pitched for the Sky Sox on Tuesday, managing just four and two-thirds innings. Outman is on his way back from an oblique injury and a long way from being ready to go deep into a game as a starter. Chacin and Moscoso were just recently banished to Colorado Springs because they pitched so poorly.

So while Tracy declined to speculate, the options include Carlos Torres, recently called up from Triple-A to be a long relief man, and Friedrich. But stay tuned. Television analyst George Frazier and his son, Parker, now at Double-A Tulsa, might be options by the time the team arrives in San Diego.

All of this is having the depressing effect you might expect on the rest of the clubhouse. The Rocks are tied for second in the National League in runs, but when you score eight and nine in consecutive games and lose them both, that’s not much consolation.

“It’s hard when you go down like this after scoring six runs early in the game and feeling excited when things are going well early in the game,” said Carlos Gonzalez, who had four hits Saturday to raise his team-leading batting average to .323.

“Everything just blew up in the middle of the game. We just have to hold the other team and continue to score runs if we need to. It’s difficult. It’s a tough loss and I’m really tired of saying the same things over and over. We need to figure it out and just try to get that ‘W’.”

Rockies management might be forgiven if this were an isolated run of bad luck. After all, Moscoso made twenty-one starts for Oakland last season and pitched to an ERA of 3.38. Outman made nine more. Chatwood made twenty-five for the Angels. The Rockies have gotten two forgettable starts from Moscoso and none from the others.

But this organization has been struggling to assemble a competent pitching staff for years, and it has made some whopper mistakes with pitchers early in the the draft, most notably selecting Greg Reynolds with the second overall pick in 2006, in the process passing on Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum, now the aces of two of their rivals in the National League West. At some point, you have to ask whether the existing management is capable of judging pitching talent, whether in the draft or the trade and free agent markets. Pitching at altitude poses unique difficulties, but you can’t do worse than last in the league.

Of course, those organizational questions are not Tracy’s concern at the moment. He just needs to find somebody — anybody — who can get people out. Preferably this week.


After one start, nowhere to go but up for Drew Pomeranz

Evidently, expectations are the Rockies’ kryptonite. Individually, collectively and in small groups.

So it should come as no surprise that Drew Pomeranz’s much-anticipated first major league start of the season disappointed. The 23-year-old power left-hander, the jewel of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, lacked command of his fastball from the start, surrendering three hits to the Diamondbacks in the first inning, including a rocket of a home run by Chris Young.

Before the game, manager Jim Tracy said he would let Pomeranz throw 90-95 pitches after opening the season with a 77-pitch outing for Double A Tulsa. The Rocks intend to manage Pomeranz’s innings carefully this season, trying to avoid a jump from last season’s 119 so dramatic it might produce an arm injury. Last year was Pomeranz’s first as a pro after Cleveland made him the fifth overall pick of the 2010 amateur draft.

Already nursing an overworked bullpen after four starters failed to reach the fifth inning in the five previous games of the current nine-game homestand, Tracy was hoping 90-95 pitches would get Pomeranz deeper into the game than 4 1/3 innings, which is all he managed.

“His command was not quite where we saw it in spring training, and I think a big part of that was he struggled with his breaking ball today,” Tracy said.

“He was throwing a lot of breaking balls where he was trying to involve it in the count and it ended up looking as though it was a two-strike breaking ball — a lot of bounced breaking balls and some misses with his fastball. And I think evidence of that is 100 pitches in 4 1/3 innings and you can’t go any further than that.”

In those 4 1/3 innings, Pomeranz gave up nine hits and five earned runs. He walked two, struck out three and surrendered the one homer. He also seemed baffled by the presence of baserunners, giving up four stolen bases, three of them on jumps so big that catcher Wilin Rosario didn’t even make a throw. Trying to change his rhythm to hold runners on, Pomeranz also committed a balk.

So, plenty to work on.

“I threw a lot of balls down the middle,” Pomeranz said. “I’m usually pretty good about staying corner to corner and missed over the middle of the plate to a good fastball-hitting team and that’s what happens.”

The inquiring minds offered up an assortment of excuses. Was he nervous for his first big league start of the season?

“Not really,” he said. “I may have been a little jacked up that first inning, but nothing after that.”

Did the cold (a wind chill of 39 to start the game) and wind affect his grip?

He shook his head, no.

“The takeaway from that is a good learning experience,” he said. “You miss over the middle of the plate, you’re going to get hit. I didn’t throw a lot of changeups today, didn’t have a good mix of three pitches. Struggled a little bit. They weren’t swinging at my curve ball. I threw some good curve balls, (but) it was like they were spitting on it waiting for fastballs.”

This may have been because, as Tracy suggested, he seldom threw his curve for strikes. Hitters will chase breaking pitches out of the zone when they have two strikes and are forced to defend the plate, but more often than not the Diamondbacks were in hitters’ counts against Pomeranz that allowed them to wait for those fat fastballs.

Pomeranz also lacked the mid-nineties velocity that has been advertised. The top speed on his fastball Sunday, according to the Coors Field radar gun, was 92.

I asked him what typically causes the command issues he demonstrated Sunday.

“A lot today, most of those hits, the home run the first inning and the last hit I gave up, were fastballs that were away that were kind of coming back middle of the plate up,” he said. “They weren’t down. They’re a good fastball-hitting team and when you’re missing down the middle up, they’re going to hit it.”

Is that the normal action of his four-seam fastball, starting outside to right-handed hitters and coming back over the plate?

“Yeah, normally my four-seams will cut, but stay in,” he said. “Like I said, I’m usually pretty good at staying out of the middle. But today I threw a lot of fastballs away that would come back and they hit ’em.”

Pomeranz downplayed the issues he had with baserunners, suggesting a simple switch to a slide step out of the stretch was all he needed.

“You could see I just went to the slide step after that,” he said, referring to three third-inning steals, two by Gerardo Parra and one by Young.

“They were getting good jumps on me so I just tried to cut my time down as much as possible and mix up some more looks. I think they may have stole one base after I switched to the slide step. The slide step’s what I did all last year. This year I’m back to picking my leg up, but it’s pretty long to the plate, so I just switched back.”

Tracy clearly thought it was more than that. Parra’s uncontested journey from first to third in the third inning was something you just don’t see in the big leagues. He tried to repeat the process in the fifth, but Justin Upton drilled a base hit as he ran, turning it into a run-and-hit and producing the jam that led to Pomeranz’s exit.

“I think as we go back and we look at film, there’s obviously an adjustment we’re going to have to make there because there was something, it seemed very apparent to me, that they had,” Tracy said.

“We have to be mindful of that and get busy and take a look at it and find out exactly what it is because when you have catchers that up until today, because today they had little if any chance to even make a throw, they have done a terrific job. When people have attempted to steal bases, they don’t make it to second. But you can’t give them a running start like they got on two or three different occasions today.”

For whatever it’s worth, Pomeranz merely joined the parade of Rockies starters who have failed to do their job in the first two series of the current nine-game homestand. Jhoulys Chacin managed four innings, Jeremy Guthrie 3 1/3 and Juan Nicasio 2 2/3. At least Pomeranz made it to the fifth. He actually went deeper than anyone except 49-year-old Jamie Moyer (5 2/3).

On the bright side, thanks to the bullpen and offense, the Rocks are 3-3 on the homestand despite the woeful starting pitching.

“We’ve got to get more length from our starters because if we continue in the manner in which we’re going right now, at some point that’s going to become hurtful,” Tracy said.

A more cynical soul might suggest it’s already been hurtful. Nine games into the season, the bullpen is in survival mode.

It’s a long season. For Pomeranz, like the rest of the starting staff except for Moyer, there’s nowhere to go but up. Watching him develop should make for a compelling summer pastime.

“We’ve got probably, hopefully, another 30 starts with him,” outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. “So we’ll see how it goes.”