Tag Archives: Jim Tracy

The Rockies’ desperate gambit

No one can say for certain who originated the popular aphorism, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” although it goes back at least to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, referring to people who were desperately ill.

Yup, the same dude who wrote the Hippocratic Oath, the one promising to do no harm, which is perhaps an oath baseball managers should also take, not that they can help themselves.

The Hippocratic Oath, by the way, was sworn to Apollo, Greek god of the sun. Just saying.

Perhaps the most succinct form of the sentiment comes from the Latin: “extremis malis extrema remedia.” Google Translate turns this into “the evils of the remedies,” which brings us to the Rockies.

I probably don’t need to explain why these are desperate times for the Rocks. Their starting pitching is as bad as it has ever been, going all the way back to the pre-humidor days when baseball games in the thin air a mile above sea level produced football scores and Rockies fans prayed for late field goals when Dante Bichette or Vinny Castilla came to bat with a couple of men on base.

This season’s early injury to Jhoulys Chacin, last year’s winningest starter, certainly didn’t help. Neither did the unexplained regression of rookie Drew Pomeranz, prize of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. Nor the continued setbacks during rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery of Jorge De La Rosa, who has yet to pitch an inning of big-league ball this season after blowing out his elbow a year ago. That’s three starters the Rocks hoped to have in their rotation by now, and none of them is.

But by far the biggest disappointment has been Jeremy Guthrie, acquired over the winter in what right now looks like one of the worst trades in club history. The Rocks exchanged inconsistent starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom for Guthrie. In Hammel’s most recent outing for Baltimore, he threw a one-hit, complete-game shutout over the Braves to improve his record to 7-2 and his earned-run average to 2.87.

Frankly, no screams of anguish filled my inbox when general manager Dan O’Dowd traded him following a 7-13, 4.76 campaign for the Rocks last season, but in retrospect he has become Rockies fans’ all-time favorite pitcher. This is mostly because of Guthrie, who has been, in a word, horrendous.

Following his latest horror show — according to one Twitter wag, it is now the Rockies Horror Pitching Show, derived from the old camp classic, the Rocky Horror Picture Show — Guthrie was summoned to manager Jim Tracy’s office on Tuesday in Philadelphia and informed he was being dropped from the starting rotation. A record of 3-6 and an ERA of 7.02 will often have that effect.

Rather than replace Guthrie with the next in line of the usual suspects, Tracy made a startling announcement. For the time being, the Rocks will operate with a rotation of four starters, not five, and each will be limited to about 75 pitches per start, owing to the fact that each will be pitching next on three days of rest rather than four.

This, then, is the Rockies’ desperate measure.

I texted Tracy in Philly this morning to see if he’d like to talk about it and he replied with a friendly personal note that also included this:

“Not much to say about it. As you and I have discussed in the past, we play in a very unique place and we’re just trying something different and we’ll see where it goes.”

Let me say at the outset that in the abstract, I am almost always in favor of trying something different. Baseball in particular has a tendency toward Orwell’s groupthink that I find maddening. A pitcher throws an eight-inning shutout, completely dominant, and the manager pulls him in favor of his “closer” in the ninth, who promptly blows it. I mention this only because the Cubs do it about once a week, or nearly every time Ryan Dempster pitches. But I digress.

So, in the abstract, I love the idea the Rocks are doing something that makes baseball fans everywhere scratch their heads. I mean, seriously, why not? What, exactly, do they have to lose? They already have the worst pitching in the game.

Unfortunately, decisions in baseball, like decisions in pretty much every other sphere of human activity, are not made in the abstract. They are made in the particular, the practical, the concrete, not to bring up the playing surface of the Phillies stadium that preceded the current one.

So let’s examine the particulars of the Rockies’ new plan. It has two basic elements. One is the four-man rotation, as opposed to the conventional five. The other is the 75-pitch limit, as opposed to the conventional (and mostly unspoken) 100-125, depending on the pitcher and circumstances. (The Mets’ Johan Santana was permitted to throw 134 against the Cardinals on June 1, mostly because he was throwing a no-hitter, but he had to convince his manager to let him finish.)

Baseball’s transition from the four-man to the five-man starting rotation is, frankly, a bit mysterious. It happened during my lifetime. In a remarkably short space of time, every team followed, like a troop of Pavlovian dogs.

I recall as if it were yesterday the 1971 Orioles staff. Mike Cuellar started 38 games that year. Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson started 37 apiece. Dave McNally started but 30, owing, if I recall, to an injury of some kind. They comprised the last big-league pitching staff with four 20-game winners (McNally won 21).

Cuellar finished 21 of his 38 starts. Palmer was right behind him with 20 complete games. Dobson had 18; McNally, 11. Dave Leonhard, a reliever who got six spot starts, finished one of those.

The major-league leader in starts that year was the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich, with 45. Forty years later, 2011’s leaders, eight of them, started 34 games apiece.

What happened? Have pitchers grown more feeble? While football, basketball and hockey players grow ever bigger, stronger and more athletic, are baseball players shrinking into fragile flowers? Has evolution mistaken them for ballet dancers?

Or is it just that they make way more money today and the people who run ballclubs and pay the large guaranteed salaries are scared to death of destroying their massive investments through overuse?

That’s a column for another day. Suffice it to say for now that ample historical evidence demonstrates a four-man rotation is not beyond the physical capability of the human species. If one team out of thirty wants to give it a try, I say, more power to it.

(Unfortunately, the Rockies are probably the one team out of thirty for which this experiment is least advisable, owing to the additional stress on the arm of trying to make pitches break and move with less air resistance a mile above sea level, a phenomenon to which any number of hurlers has testified over the club’s twenty-year history. Again, a subject for another day.)

It is the second element of the Rocks’ desperate measure that throws me off the track into the tumbleweeds. The central problem posed by the club’s sorry starting pitching this season has been the burden on the bullpen, which already leads the National League in innings pitched.

Ineffective starters have had to come out of games early, leaving too much of the game to be pitched by relievers, which wears them out and leaves them less effective when the Rocks are actually ahead late in a game, as rare as that is these days. Rather than solve that problem, the new strategy gilds it into club policy.

If a starter must come out after 75 pitches no matter what, even when the Rocks get that rarest of all silver moonbeams, an effective start, that rare masterpiece will have to end prematurely and the bullpen will have to be called upon, even if, for a change, it isn’t really needed.

The problem here is one of simple arithmetic. When Tracy moved Guthrie to the bullpen, he designated him one of two “long” relievers — the sort that comes into a game early when the starter comes out early. The other long man in the Rocks’ bullpen is Guillermo Moscoso.

So, when Tracy pulled starter Josh Outman on Day 1 of the experiment at 72 pitches with one out in the fifth inning, he called on Moscoso, who came on to finish the fifth and pitch the sixth, acting as a bridge to the (these days) normal bullpen innings — the seventh, eighth and (if necessary) ninth. This evening, one assumes, when Tracy pulls Alex White after 75 pitches, it will be Guthrie who serves as the bridge.

And what about tomorrow? Moscoso again? Are the two long men now sentenced to pitch multiple innings every other day? Does that sound like a good idea?

Maybe the Rocks are counting on occasionally getting a really efficient start in which 75 pitches get them into the sixth and no long man is required. But in the case of such a start, why the heck would you want to remove a guy pitching so efficiently? To follow some pre-ordained plan that makes no allowance for the common-sense notion that, Hey, this dude is pitching really well! Leave him alone!

The more pitchers you use in a game, the more likely you are to use one who is ineffective that particular day. If you have a system that guarantees you’re going to use four or five every single day, the chances at least one will blow up are pretty good.

Take Tuesday, Day 1 of the experiment. Adam Ottavino has been one of the Rockies’ best relievers this season. But he happened not to have it Tuesday. The third pitcher in, he gave up three runs in one inning of work. A 4-2 deficit became a 7-2 deficit. Game over.

The last time a baseball club decided the solution to its problems lay in a committee, it was the Cubs and their college of coaches in 1961 and ’62. The manager’s job rotated among seven coaches, every one of whom had a losing record. That will be the column’s final Cubs reference. Promise.

Common sense in baseball has always suggested this: When a pitcher is going well, leave him in there. When a pitcher is going badly, take him out. All sorts of “innovations” have worked against this simple principle. Managers routinely remove pitchers now simply because they throw with the wrong arm. A left-handed batter is coming up, therefore the right-handed reliever throwing well must come out and a left-handed reliever must come on. A pitcher throwing well must come out because his turn in the lineup is coming up (National League). And so on.

In short, the fewer arbitrary rules a team has, the more likely it is to follow common sense and allow effective pitchers to keep pitching. This should be the goal.

So, what’s the alternative for the Rocks, a team in admittedly dire straits? Well, I’m sorry to say, it’s not experimental and it’s not innovative. Sometimes the simplest solution is also the right one.

Moscoso, a 28-year-old right hander from Venezuela, started 21 games for Oakland last season, finishing with a record of 8-10 and an ERA of 3.38. When the Rocks obtained him and Outman from the A’s in exchange for Seth Smith last winter, they envisioned him as a candidate for the starting rotation. Unfortunately, Moscoso was terrible in spring training and about as bad during a brief (two starts) major-league audition. A demotion back to the minor leagues followed.

Since his return in early June, he’s been getting progressively better. Including his stint in relief of Outman on Tuesday, he has now pitched 6 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in three relief appearances. He has earned another chance to start.

With youngsters Pomeranz and Tyler Chatwood trying to get their acts together in the minor leagues and Chacin, De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio working their way back from injuries, this need not be a permanent solution. But for now, it is the obvious one: Add Moscoso to the rotation as the fifth starter, replacing Guthrie. Trade Guthrie, a mental casualty of Coors Field, as soon as possible.

That leaves a starting rotation of White, Moscoso, Outman, Jeff Francis and Christian Friedrich. If, by some miracle, one of them pitches a really good game, Tracy can leave him in there to pitch as far as he can rather than remove him for no good reason because he’s hit an arbitrary pitch limit.

And if none of them ever does, well, the Rocks are right back to where they are now, ringing that bullpen phone too early.

I empathize with Tracy’s plight. And I admire his willingness to try something different in a league where groupthink often appears to be the only thinking going on. But sometimes, when you wrestle with a problem too long, you can just out-think yourself.

At times like those, it’s sometimes a good idea to take a break and pop in a DVD of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

“You just keep thinking, Butch,” says Sundance. “That’s what you’re good at.”


Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you

It was probably past time for Jim Tracy to get thrown out of a game. Too bad he didn’t kick dirt over home plate or pull up first base or turn his hat around so he could go nose-to-nose with Greg Gibson. I mean, if you’re getting tossed anyway, get your money’s worth. That’s what Earl Weaver used to say.

On the precipice of a five-game losing streak, their starting pitching now in the conversation for the worst of all time, the Rockies came to bat in the bottom of the ninth Sunday trailing the Los Angeles Angels 10-7.

They got one back immediately. Tyler Colvin led off with a double to the opposite field off Scott Downs, a tough left-hander, and Marco Scutaro followed with a single to center. Colvin scored and the Rocks were within two. It was the first earned run Downs had surrendered in 24 appearances covering 20 2/3 innings this season.

Despite the sorry state of the home team, which fell to 11 games below .500 at 24-35, 37,722 fans showed up at Coors Field on a beautiful, cool afternoon, and most of them were still there. They rose to cheer a comeback that might salvage one game from the series.

Carlos Gonzalez, who had three hits, including both his 16th home run and a bunt single, drilled a shot head-high back up the middle. Downs lifted his glove, at least partly in self-defense, and the ball found it.

“He caught the ball,” Tracy said afterward.

Scutaro had started toward second and Downs realized he had a chance to double him off first. He reached into his glove even as the momentum of CarGo’s shot drove him backward. The ball fell out of his glove and hit the ground. This happens all the time at second base as pivot men try to turn the double play. The umpire calls the runner out at second, signaling that the catch was made and the ball dropped in the exchange to the throwing hand. This was not the call Gibson made.

“He called it a no catch, and I’m not going to speak any more about it,” Tracy said before speaking just a little more about it.

“I put myself in a real position to get in a heck of a lot of trouble, but personally I felt like he caught the ball. He caught the ball and was reaching for the ball because ‘Scootie’ was kind of hung out to dry. On a ball that’s hit that hard, if that ball is not caught, you see the ball hit in the glove and immediately come back out. He had possession and he was starting to fall back and he was reaching into the glove to try to take the ball and throw it to first base. That’s what I saw. That’s all I have to say about it.”

Gibson not only made the wrong call, he made it badly, failing to communicate to fans or even the runner at first base what the heck was going on. Suddenly, the Angels were picking up the ball, throwing it to second, then throwing it to first for a conventional double play while Scutaro and Gonzalez looked on in amazement.

Tracy bolted from the dugout with surprising alacrity and confronted Gibson along the first-base line, obviously stupefied. It took him maybe a minute to get tossed. The effect of the call was to leave the Rocks with two out and nobody on. Michael Cuddyer managed a two-out single, but Todd Helton’s pop out completed the Angels’ sweep (the Rocks are now 0-6 in interleague play) and extended the losing streak to five.

“You don’t want to see that, especially in the ninth inning with no outs, representing the tie run at the plate and having Cuddyer on deck and Todd,” CarGo said. “It’s frustrating. It’s even more frustrating than everything else.

“He caught the ball. It’s amazing he caught that ball. It was even harder for me to see the ball coming off the bat and I’m sure the pitcher didn’t see the ball well. And the umpire didn’t see it at all. I guess the first thing he saw was when (Downs) was doing the turn to throw the ball to first base and as soon as (Gibson) saw the ball on the ground, he called it was no catch. But I watched the replay.

“I hit the ball, I saw he caught the ball, I shut it down, and then I was looking to first base when the umpire was calling no catch. So I turn around because I was confused, I didn’t know who was going to make the call, and I didn’t see the umpire because his hand was already down. He was just standing out there. Confusion. They throw the ball to second and they throw the ball to first. There was no chance for me to get to first base. It was tough. I think it was the wrong call because he caught the ball.

“It’s a different situation, man on first, one out. With one out, we still have a chance. With two outs, you have to create a situation again. Cuddyer did a great job getting on base and it’s a tough lefty for a lefty. That’s why Todd didn’t come through and hit the ball up to third base.

“I was in shock. First I was surprised that he caught the ball. I was more surprised that he called it a double play. I leave everything to the manager. He did anything possible to make a change. What can I do about it? I just walked back to the dugout. I knew I was out because he caught the ball, but not a double play.”

This has nothing to do with the team’s basic problem, of course. The Rocks put up 13 hits and scored eight runs. Christian Friedrich lasted four innings, which was longer than three Rockies starters in the last four games, surrendering nine runs, eight of them earned, and 10 hits. The day before, Jeff Francis surrendered eight runs in 3 1/3 innings. The starting pitching is just stunningly bad.

“I actually felt great,” said Friedrich, who now carries an earned-run average of 1.80 in four road starts and 12.60 in three starts at Coors Field. “I felt better than the last start. We had a good plan, I just didn’t execute the pitches.”

The position players don’t want to hear that any more than you do, although you do feel a little sorry for Friedrich, a rookie, taking the weight for veteran pitchers who have spit the bit.

“Offensively, we did a great job,” CarGo said. “It was a bad day again for the pitchers. To score 10 runs is a lot of pressure for us, but we did everything possible. We did everything we can. We just fell short again.”

Gibson’s bad call killed the Rockies’ final hope for a comeback. The umpires were escorted off the field to a symphonic catcall chorus from the faithful.

But, hey, Gibson’s screw-up did have one redeeming quality: For one day, it gave the Rocks someone to be mad at other than themselves.


Sure you can go home again, but you might get hammered when you do

Desperate for starting pitching, the Rockies fired up the flux capacitor and reached into the past, snatching Jeff Francis off the major league scrap heap and sending him out to face Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels at Coors Field on Saturday.

Three and a third innings later, the Rockies’ first-round draft pick a decade ago had given up eight runs on 10 hits and much of the air had gone out of the sentimental story.

“It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but it certainly felt good to be back out there and back in here,” Francis said afterward. “I know I’ve got a lot more than that to offer this team so I’m going to continue to work hard and bounce back from it.”

Manager Jim Tracy promised earlier in the day that Francis would get more than one spot start as the Rocks await the return of Juan Nicasio from the disabled list.

“I’ve written his name down a couple times, as a matter of fact,” Tracy said a couple of hours before Saturday’s 11-5 loss, his team’s fourth in a row. “We’ll see where it takes us, but I’m not a believer that you give a guy one start and then say, ‘That’s it, that’s not good enough, that’s not going to work, that’s not what we’re looking for, we’re moving on to yet another guy.’ You’ve got to give this guy some opportunity.”

After Francis’ abbreviated outing, the third time in the last four games the Rocks’ starter failed to survive the fourth inning, Tracy kept his post-mortem brief.

“I don’t want to judge him too much the first time out. I don’t want to get real involved in analyzing and/or feeling like I’m overanalyzing Jeff. Just like anybody else, that’s his first time after what he had been doing at Triple-A with the Reds. Let’s let him take another start. He threw strikes like he always does. They certainly didn’t pound him. I believe they hit all singles with the exception of Pujols’ home run (off Guillermo Moscoso). Let’s get him his time off and get him back out there, let him have another start and see where we go from there.

“And Jeff realizes this, the important thing is he pitches ahead and gets ahead of hitters and doesn’t put himself in a position where he has to use a bunch of the plate, because I don’t think that’s going to work out too well for him or anybody else. But I think we’ll stop right there and just let him go back out there a second time and see where it goes from there.”

According to the Coors Field radar gun, Francis threw his fastball between 85 and 89 miles an hour, his change-up in the high 70s and his big, looping curve ball in the high 60s. I mentioned I didn’t recall the curve getting down into the 60s before. He smiled and suggested altitude might have something to do with that.

“It’s something I do take off a bit,” he said. “It’s a pitch that you come here and you’ve got to make some adjustments with it.”

The ninth overall pick of the 2002 draft, Francis had double-digit wins for the Rocks in 2005, 2006 and 2007, winning 44 games over that span, including 17 in ’07, when he also won two playoff games before losing Game 1 of the World Series.

When he returned in 2008 he had soreness in his pitching shoulder. He tried to pitch through it, finishing a disappointing 4-10. When the pain returned in spring training of 2009, he shut it down and submitted to surgical repair. His recovery wiped out his 2009 season and delayed his 2010 return until mid-May.

He finished 2010 with a record of 4-6, an earned-run average of 5.00 and his former velocity — in the low ’90s — a distant memory. He’d never been a power pitcher, but now he was dangerously close to having to rely entirely on guile.

Eligible for free agency and coming off a year in which he’d earned $5.7 million, the Rockies decided to let the market determine his value. He signed a one-year deal for $2 million with the Kansas City Royals, where he went 6-16 with a 4.82 ERA.

When no big league club summoned him this year, Francis signed a minor league deal with Cincinnati. He pitched creditably, if not spectacularly, for the Triple-A Louisville Bats, going 3-6 with a 3.72 ERA. His 77 1/3 innings led the club. After throwing a complete game shutout over the Durham Bulls last Sunday (June 3), Francis exercised his option to get out of his deal. He said Saturday he had no assurances from the Rockies when he made that decision.

“I just took a risk hoping there’d be a job out there for me somewhere, and fortunately there was,” he said.

When the Rockies called, he didn’t hesitate, despite knowing better than most the effect that pitching at altitude can have on a hurler’s statistics. Having pitched most of his career in Colorado, Francis has a mediocre career ERA of 4.78.

“I wasn’t going to wait around,” he said. “The Rockies wanted me to play here. I wasn’t going to turn it down. I loved playing here when I was here and I’d love to help this team win again. I can’t imagine anything better than winning in this town. So when the opportunity came up, I jumped on it.”

Now, of course, the question is whether the post-surgical Francis, at 31, can help.

“I really do the things that I’ve always done as a pitcher,” he said. “I don’t really think I’ve changed a lot. Since the surgery I’ve really tried to get back to the pitcher I was and the pitcher I am. To me, there’s only one way I know how to throw, and that’s what you see out there. The velocity has never come all the way back, but it’s creeping, it’s creeping. It’s more than it was at this time last year. So there’s things that I continue to do to stay strong and to stay healthy.”

While it’s true Francis didn’t give up any extra-base hits Saturday, he gave up a lot of sharp singles, 10 in 3 1/3 innings, including five in the second inning alone.

“Obviously, I gave up a lot of hits, but I don’t feel like I was hit around hard,” he said. “A couple of balls that could have gone a different way could have turned around some innings for me, but they didn’t, and I wasn’t able to recover from it. I’d make a mistake here and there and they’d take advantage of it. Next thing you know, it’s eight runs later.”

The Rocks are desperate enough for starting pitching to give Francis a longer leash, but they do have an in-house alternative in Moscoso, who is currently the long man in the bullpen but was a starter last season for Oakland. Moscoso wasn’t great in relief of Francis, giving up two runs on four hits in 2 2/3 innings, but he was better than Francis. Of course, Moscoso had chances to earn a spot in the rotation, both in spring training and early in the season, and failed to take advantage.

To make room for Francis on the roster, the Rockies finally threw in the towel on talented but maddening Esmil Rogers, designating him for assignment. Rogers has great stuff, often hitting 96 with his fastball, but his mental focus comes and goes. The last straw came Friday night, when Tracy brought him in to pitch the top of the ninth against the Angels.

“You’re trailing 4-1,” Tracy said. “We need three outs. He gets two outs on five pitches and 18 pitches later I have to walk out there and get him. And we’ve got to warm another guy up and bring another guy in. You just start running out of opportunities to do that because the club doesn’t respond to it too well, either, let’s be honest about it, when they see him walk out there. That’s where we’re at.”

The Angels scored three in the ninth off Rogers and won going away, 7-2. Tracy said the Rockies would be happy to take Rogers back if he clears waivers, but with his arm, someone seems likely to put in a claim.

The Rocks have now slipped back to 10 games below .500 at 24-34. Most of the good feeling from their recent 6-1 homestand has disappeared. Their starting rotation could qualify as a federal disaster area. They can’t expect their results to change until that does.

“The thing that I have to say simply boils down to this,” Tracy said following Saturday’s loss. “Much like we were dealing with in the month of May, over the course of three out of the last four days we pitched a total of 9 2/3 starter innings, and that’s not going to work. It’s just simply not going to work.”

Those would be Josh Outman (3 innings), Jeremy Guthrie (3 1/3) and Francis (3 1/3). The only bright spot was six innings from Alex White, who made two mistakes to Torii Hunter, which were enough to beat an offense that scored three runs in three games before Saturday, when it produced five home runs, all of them solo shots. It was the second game this season in which the Rocks hit five home runs. They lost both.

Whether Francis can help turn around the worst starting pitching in the National League will determine whether his return to Colorado is more than a forgettable curtain call.


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.


This is what the Rockies have been waiting for

With his words, Rockies manager Jim Tracy has always been in Dexter Fowler’s corner. With his actions, not so much.

And who could blame him? He has a team to run, and ballgames to try to win. Fowler’s ceiling is sky-high. He could be Willie Wilson with power. And yet, for most of his four seasons in Colorado he has been a tease — hot and cold, fast and slow, one step forward and two steps back.

Despite graceful, long-legged speed that roamed the vast expanses of Coors Field like a deer, his stolen base success rate was lousy. No matter how much he practiced, he didn’t seem able to learn to bunt. His switch-hitting, learned relatively late in his development, seemed a perpetual experiment.

Finally, in the second half of last season, he seemed to put it together. After batting .238 before the All-Star break with no home runs, two stolen bases (caught six times) and an OPS of .688, he was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs, quite a rebuke for a 25-year-old veteran of three big league seasons.

When he returned to the big leagues, he looked like the player he was supposed to be, batting .288 with five homers, 10 steals (caught three times) and an OPS of .879. He had finally arrived, they said. Of course, they’d said that before.

Known for their patience, the Rocks finally grew impatient with a number of their homegrown position players after last season’s disappointing 73-89 finish, among them Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta, all of whom were traded during the offseason. But not Fowler. His second half of 2011, the club was convinced, was a preview of coming attractions.

But when he showed up at spring training, it was the same old story. He had regressed to Square One. His hands, which had come down in his batting stance after the 2011 midseason tutorial at Colorado Springs, were up high again. And, once again, he couldn’t hit. He batted .149 in the Cactus League. Tracy was forced to shelve the tentative 2012 lineup in which Fowler batted leadoff and served as the offensive catalyst.

The Rocks began the season with Fowler batting second, behind veteran Marco Scutaro. When that became a dead zone, Tracy dropped him to eighth.

His overall numbers weren’t terrible — he was batting .237 going into Monday’s Memorial Day doubleheader, with an OPS of .832 thanks to six home runs and 19 walks — but he had shown a bizarre knack for getting his hits when it mattered least. When the Rocks led or trailed by more than four runs, he was batting over .400. When the game was closer than that, he was batting below .200. He had driven in just one run that put his team ahead. By contrast, Todd Helton, batting just .230, had eight. Troy Tulowitzki had nine. Jason Giambi, a professional pinch-hitter, had three.

So Fowler was slowly losing playing time. Going into Memorial Day, he had started 33 of the Rocks’ 46 games. Tyler Colvin (eight) and Eric Young Jr. (five) had started the others in center field. As if to turn his struggles from the discouraging to the absurd, he had been limited to pinch-hitting duty for three days in Cincinnati last week after turning his ankle while jumping to celebrate a Carlos Gonzalez home run.

But with the Rockies swiftly sliding into oblivion in the National League West and Fowler having launched a pinch-hit homer in his final at-bat of the recent road trip — with the Rocks down only three, no less — Tracy took a shot in Monday’s opener and penciled him into his lineup to start a game in the leadoff spot for the first time this season.

Suddenly, as in time-lapse photography, the flower bloomed. He began the day with a home run and ended it, nearly nine hours later, with a walk-off, game-winning triple — twice as many go-ahead RBI in one day as he’d had the entire season. In between, he produced five other hits, including a bunt single that turned into three bases when his speed forced an errant throw. He also threw in a bases-loaded walk and a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt late in the nightcap.

In all, he was 7-for-9 with five runs scored and three driven in, raising his batting average from .237 to .276 and his OPS from .832 to .926. The Rocks swept the doubleheader. Suddenly, there was joy in Mudville. That’s how much difference Fowler can make.

“That looked like the Dexter Fowler that was running around out there the second half of last year, but maybe even a little bit more. That’s how good he was,” Tracy said.

“I’ve had some sit-downs with Dexter and I’ve been questioned from the media about the situation — you know, him, Eric Young Jr., Tyler Colvin. I’m a big believer in Dexter Fowler, as you guys well know. I’ve stepped to the forefront and said that I firmly believe that this kid’s going to figure it out and he’s going to do it. And when he performs at the level that he performed at today, we’re that much better a club offensively. There’s so many things that he can do. The bunt that he laid down, it creates havoc, he’s so fast. He runs from home to third on a bunt that gets past the first baseman. This is the player that we think he’s capable of being on a regular basis, and not spotty. He can do this on a day-in, day-out basis. He’s very capable of it.”

Sure he can. But will he? The Rocks preach patience in all things, whether it’s Fowler, the young pitching staff or their own front office, which is under increasing fire from unhappy fans. Of course, it was under increasing fire from unhappy fans throughout the early aughts, too. That’s when the organization, under general manager Dan O’Dowd, shifted from the model of acquiring established players that worked well early on (Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker) but not so well later (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle), to a model of growing its own talent.

It took years for the rebuilt player development system to begin producing, and the early aughts were a wasteland. O’Dowd should have been fired at least a dozen times along the way, if you listened to his critics. But when Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Jeff Francis and Ubaldo Jimenez led them to the 2007 World Series, the organization’s patience through the dead years was rewarded.

Today, once again, O’Dowd and the front office are under fire. Today, once again, they are counseling patience. We don’t know yet whether they will be proven right about the young crop of starting pitchers that is putting up cringe-worthy numbers at the moment. The Rocks’ team ERA of 5.18 is worst in the National League by nearly three-quarters of a run.

Of 23-year-old Alex White, who gave up six runs and 10 hits in five innings to raise his earned-run average to 6.28 in Monday’s nightcap, Tracy said this:

“He hung in there, just like he did in the game in Florida. He didn’t break. Until we can get to the point where we get lower numbers and much deeper into the game, that’s what we ask of these young kids: ‘Don’t break. Don’t let the game get out of hand and we’ll keep learning and we’ll keep growing together. But don’t let the game get out of hand.’ He’s done it twice. (Christian) Friedrich did it Friday night against Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati. And we’ve won those ballgames.”

If Fowler becomes the consistent, multifaceted offensive weapon he could be, he will serve as Exhibit A for the organization’s commitment to patience. What distinguished him from Stewart, Smith and Iannetta in the eyes of the organization was not just the ceiling, it was also the attitude. One of the most likable professional athletes on the planet, Fowler has never sulked or griped about his ups and downs. His desire was obvious during the celebration that followed his game-winning triple in the 19th and final inning of the long holiday doubleheader.

“Tears of joy . . . I was excited,” he said. “I had one walk-off hit before, but nothing like this, from what I’ve battled through this year, and what the team has battled through.”

At 19-29, the Rocks are still a long way from where they thought they’d be at this point. But the offense that scored 16 runs in two games Monday showed the sort of explosiveness the organization imagined when it reconstructed the roster over the winter.

“I think it’s very safe to say that offensively, we felt this way,” Tracy said. “We felt we had a good offensive club, and it’s beginning to play itself out that way.”

The key word being “beginning.” Fowler broke out Monday with the best day of his professional career. Now comes what has always been the hardest part for him — keeping it going.


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.