Tag Archives: D.J. LeMahieu

Shake, rattle and roll

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The day begins with a man bundled up like a polar explorer riding a lawn mower around an already-manicured outfield while another man pounds the dirt around home plate and another carefully unwraps the pitcher’s mound.

It ends with the man whose Twitter handle is @Chuck_Nazty putting himself in the baseball history books, the Rockies’ fifth starter of the year showing the first four how it’s done and the most beautiful swing in the game launching a ball so high and far it almost crashed the party in a string of drinking houses now occupying the previously uncharted third level in right field.

They shook, they rattled, they rolled. You could almost hear Big Joe Turner.

“Pretty much couldn’t have gone any better,” manager Walt Weiss said.

The Rockies lost three of their first four in Miami to a team not expected to do much this year. They hit adequately, but not in the clutch, and pitched poorly. It looked a lot like last year. Neither the batting order nor the pitching staff looked anywhere near as good as the spring previews of coming attractions.

So the traditional pilgrimage to 20th and Blake for the home opener carried a certain trepidation that all the offseason optimism was manufactured, a product of our pitiful wistfulness, sure to be dashed again. Then Charlie Blackmon, a.k.a. Nazty, doubled to lead off the first and scored on a Michael Cuddyer single to give the Rocks a 1-0 lead.

“I was just happy to get a hit,” he said afterward. “You go in there, you’re like, all right, first inning, you’re leading off, like, I’m just trying to jump-start the offense. Usually, I’m just trying to get a hit. And if I get one hit, come out and try and get two hits. And you just take it from there.”

He came out and got two hits in the third, singling and coming around to score, along with Cuddyer, on a triple down the right field line by Carlos Gonzalez.

Blackmon homered to right in the fourth, a no-doubter driving in D.J. LeMahieu as well. This made it 6-0 and Nazty got a little cocky.

The next time he came to bat, with the score 6-1, he doubled to the opposite field leading off the sixth, his fourth consecutive hit. On the first subsequent pitch, to Cuddyer, Blackmon took off for third. There are a number of reasons one might have advised him not to do this. One would be the old baseball rule, never make the first out of an inning at third base. You’re already in scoring position at second and the meat of your batting order is coming up. Another would be that the meat of your batting order consists of Cuddyer, CarGo and Troy Tulowitzki.

Anyway, he takes off on the first pitch from lefty Joe Thatcher. Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero fires the ball to third. Third baseman Martin Prado catches it and lays his glove, wrapped around the ball, in front of the bag. This allows Blackmon to tag himself out by sliding into it. Which he does, pinning Prado’s glove against the base with his spikes and forcing him from the game with a bleeding hand. That steal attempt is the only reason Blackmon wasn’t on base for CarGo’s 457-foot rocket to right. Otherwise, he would have scored five runs instead of four.

Of course, by then it was academic. The score was 8-1. It would become 10-1 in the seventh, when Blackmon’s single to right, his fifth hit, drove in pinch-hitter Brandon Barnes, one of the alleged contenders for the center field job Blackmon wants, who had just gotten his first hit in six tries on the young season, a triple to right-center.

It didn’t look as though Blackmon would get a sixth plate appearance. The Rocks had two out and nobody on in their half of the eighth. Two batters remained before the lineup got back up to Blackmon. But LeMahieu and Barnes both walked and here came Chuck Nazty one more time.

He lifted a slicing drive down the left-field line, where nobody plays a left-handed hitter. It dropped just inside the line and presto, hit No. 6 and double No. 3.

“I didn’t even know where it went when I hit it,” Blackmon said. “So you know you’re having a good day when you just kind of hit a ball and it ends up two inches inside the line. Just one of those days.”

That drove in the last two of the Rocks’ runs in a 12-2 romp that joined a list of memorable Colorado openers including EY’s leadoff homer in the inaugural, Dante’s walkoff in Coors Field’s debut and a Clint Barmes walkoff that briefly awoke Rockies fans in 2005.

“He’ll be in there tomorrow,” Weiss said when asked about a revolving door in center field that also includes Barnes, Drew Stubbs and Corey Dickerson in the season’s early going. “I talked about it a lot this spring. Charlie did a heck of a job for us last year — the last month of the season, played really well. Those guys are all going to play. All of them bring something to the party. But Charlie’s done a great job last year and he’s off to a great start already this year.”

Through five games, Blackmon is batting .563 with a slugging percentage of .938 and an OPS . . . oh, never mind. He staked a claim to that job, though. CarGo said twice he thought Blackmon has proved he deserves to be an everyday player.

“Baseball’s funny,” Blackmon said. “As good as today was, I could be just as bad tomorrow. So I’m not going to try and get too excited about it. That’s the beauty of baseball — good or bad, you’ve got to come out the next day, completely forget what you did the day before and try and win a baseball game. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.”

While Blackmon was becoming the first (and only other) Rockies player to put up six hits in a game since Andres Galarraga in 1995, the fifth pitcher to start a game this season, Juan Nicasio, was correcting the first four. With Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood out with injuries, Nicasio isn’t really the fifth starter, but Weiss held him back for the home opener because he thought his familiarity with the ballpark would give him a better chance than a newcomer like Jordan Lyles to ignore the hoopla of Opening Day.

Nicasio became the first Rockies starter to see the seventh inning this season. He repeatedly threw strike one, a strategy several of his teammates had assiduously avoided in Miami. He came out after giving up one run and four hits in seven innings. He threw just 87 pitches, 64 of them strikes. In addition to his usual gas, he commanded a tough slider and even mixed in a changeup.

“Juan did a great job,” Weiss said. “It was pretty much what the doctor ordered. We needed a good start and Juan got us deep in the game. Swung the bats well, manufactured some runs early when we had to and then had some big shots. CarGo, of course, Charlie. Good day all around. Pretty much couldn’t have gone any better.”

CarGo was drilling shots into the second deck in batting practice before the game when Weiss told him he might be the first to launch a ball into the new party deck looking down on right field from high above. Gonzalez just missed, pounding a Thatcher slider off the facing of the third deck.

“Nice and easy swing, a slider hanging right down the middle, and, you know, I got all of it,” CarGo said with a smile.

“It was a tough road trip. We could have split, but that’s going to happen. It’s a long season. A lot of things are going to happen. But the one thing that you can control is just showing up the next day with the same enthusiasm. That’s what we did today, in front of a lot of people. I think there is a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, so that really helps us.”

More than 49,000 happy souls — well, most of them were happy — wandered out into LoDo afterward thinking these guys just might prove to be pretty good companions during the summer to come. This was less a contest than a party, a celebration of baseball’s return.

“I think it’s the first time I’ve seen 6-for-6,” CarGo said. “I was talking to the guys on the bench. I don’t think I ever hit 6-for-6 even in little leagues.”

It’s a long season, as someone is sure to remind you if you offer even a hint of enthusiasm over Friday’s lidlifter. Spring will turn to summer. The Broncos will get back together for another run and the Rocks will barely be half done. Anything can happen. But coming off two last-place seasons in a row, the opener was a baseball booster shot. In the bars of LoDo, the buzz was all about┬áthe Nazty.


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 . . . .┬áHe 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.