Tag Archives: Matt Belisle

Treading water

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

It was one of those Colorado days Sunday at the ballyard. Bright blue sky, big crowd, lots of hits, lots of runs, no discernible sign of professional pitching.

This was in marked contrast to the Rockies’ three previous games — the finale of the last road trip in San Diego and the first two home games against the Phillies — in which they got shockingly good pitching, putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season by scores of 3-1, 12-1 and 3-1.

This is really the only question that matters about the 2014 edition of the Rocks. If they pitch like that even half the time, they will be pretty good. If they don’t, they won’t.

“Yeah, the game tends to fall into place when you get starting pitching,” manager Walt Weiss said before Sunday’s game when I asked him about that three-game stretch.

“That’s the key to this game. I don’t care what level you’re playing at. You get good starting pitching, you’re usually in good shape. We’ve had some guys step up. We’re talking about missing three of the top guys in our rotation to start the season. I think if you did that to any rotation in baseball, it’d be a challenge. So the fact that we’ve had guys step up and respond to the call has been really encouraging to me. And one of those guys is the guy that threw (Saturday) night, Jordan Lyles. He’s really been giving us a shot in the arm.”

Through 20 games, or 13 percent of the season, the Rocks are 10-10, and their team stats are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. At home, in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, they’re a sensational offensive team, batting .354. Their OPS of .978 is 160 points higher than the next best home team.

On the road, they’re a mediocre to poor offense, their team OPS of .662 ranking 20th among the 30 big league clubs.

Troy Tulowitzki is batting .667 at home with two homers and 10 runs batted in. He’s batting .229 on the road with no homers and two RBI.

Carlos Gonzalez is batting .375 at home, .205 on the road. Charlie Blackmon’s splits are .486 and .313; Michael Cuddyer’s .417 and .250.

As anyone who has followed the Rockies for any appreciable amount of time knows, numbers such as these are an occupational hazard of playing here. The home numbers are inflated by the Coors Field factor and the road numbers are depressed by the increased movement of pitches at or near sea level and the constant adjustment Rockies hitters must make as they switch elevations throughout the season.

You might expect the reverse effect on their pitching numbers, and over large sample sizes and multiple years, you get it. But so far this year, they’re actually pitching better at Coors Field than on the road with a home earned-run average of 3.78 and road ERA of 4.55. For individual pitchers, of course, the sample size so far is ridiculously small.

The most encouraging single development, by far, has been the work of Lyles, as Weiss noted. He would not even be in the rotation if it weren’t for a sore hamstring that kept Tyler Chatwood from making his first couple of starts. Unaffected by Coors Field and its reputation for driving pitchers insane, Lyles has thrown his power sinker and big breaking curve ball at elevation with considerable early success, giving up one earned run in 13 2/3 innings for a home ERA of 0.66. He and Chatwood have been the Rockies’ only reliable starters so far.

As Weiss noted, the pitching staff remains a work in progress due to injury. Jhoulys Chacin, a 14-game winner last year, has yet to make his first start as he works his way back from shoulder stiffness in the spring. Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland during the offseason along with a history of being prone to injury, broke a finger hitting a ground ball and is out at least a month after making just three starts. De La Rosa, a 16-game winner a year ago, has yet to find his groove, although his most recent start, his fourth of the season, was his best. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been predictably unpredictable.

The bullpen has been very good for stretches and very bad for stretches. Sunday, with a chance to sweep a series for the first time this season, it gave up five runs to the Phillies in four innings of work. Matt Belisle took the loss, but Boone Logan had the worst day, surrendering three runs, two earned, and retiring just one batter, as the Rocks fell 10-9.

Despite what looks like a sensational defensive team on paper, they are in the middle of the pack with 12 errors in 20 games, three of them at the catcher position, and that doesn’t include two run-scoring passed balls by backup Jordan Pacheco in just five games wearing the gear. It’s nice to have guys who can hit behind the plate, but so far the poor defense has more than made up for the offensive contributions of Pacheco and Wilin Rosario.

The much-maligned Dexter Fowler trade is working out pretty well so far. It produced their best starter to date in Lyles, and it freed up the money to sign free agent Justin Morneau, who looks like a classic Coors Field reclamation project in the tradition of Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette. Morneau is batting .364 and leads the club in RBI with 15 in the early going. He’s also avoided the dramatic splits, batting .367 at Coors and .324 elsewhere.

The fragility of their star players was a big factor in last season’s long, slow-motion collapse, and it’s already been an issue this year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer have already missed time with leg issues, a troublesome sign. It might be time to bring in a yoga instructor.

It’s early, of course. April numbers are overly examined because they’re the only numbers we have when everybody is still excited about the possibilities. Last year the Rocks went 16-11 in April and finished 74-88.

When I asked Weiss if he liked where his team is through 20 games, this is what he said:

“I like our club. I like the mentality of our club. I think our guys will fight through the tough stuff and I think that’s the X factor in this league. And I think we have that. So, yeah, I like where we’re at.”

So far, the Rocks are who we thought they were — a big-time offense at home, a small-time offense on the road and mediocre on the mound pretty much everywhere, except for that promising stretch of three games at the end of last week. If Chacin returns soon, De La Rosa finds his form and Lyles and Chatwood continue what they’ve started, the pitching could be better than mediocre. If the hitting stars can stay on the field and learn to play more situational ball on the road, the offense could be more consistently productive.

That’s a lot of ifs. The promise is there, but that’s still all it is.


How to pitch at Coors Field

Jeremy Guthrie might be this season’s highest-profile meltdown of a pitcher new to Coors Field, but he’s not exactly the lone ranger:

Guillermo Moscoso had an earned-run average of 3.38 last season for Oakland, mostly as a starter. Obtained by the Rockies with Josh Outman in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith, his ERA was 8.23 in two big league stints before being returned to the minor leagues. It was 11.21 at Coors; 2.79 elsewhere.

Outman had a 3.70 ERA for the A’s last season. In his first year with the Rocks, that number is 9.00. He, too, has been returned to the minors.

Tyler Chatwood, obtained from the Angels for catcher Chris Iannetta, had an ERA of 4.75 in the American League as a 21-year-old. At 22, for the Rocks, his ERA is 7.62. Like the others, he is now a minor leaguer.

So it seems worth getting some insight into the specific difficulties pitchers face making their pitches in the less-dense air a mile above sea level. Unfortunately, when you go looking for big league hurlers who found a way to succeed at Coors and are willing to talk about it, you find it’s a pretty small group.

No one has taken the mound more often for the Rockies over the past three seasons than reliever Matt Belisle. He led the team in appearances two years ago with 76 and again last year with 74. This season he leads with 45 through 88 games, one back of the league leader, Shawn Camp of the Cubs. In a year in which the Rocks were determined to get Belisle’s appearances below 70, he’s on a pace for 83.

He also leads the club in earned-run average at 2.25, a number that was 1.88 before he was charged with two runs Saturday night against the Phillies. The previous two seasons he compiled ERAs of 2.93 (2010) and 3.25 (2011) — microscopic by Rockies standards. His splits this year are 2.92 at Coors and 1.54 elsewhere.

He wasn’t feeling great Saturday night after giving up two extra-base hits down the right field line in the ninth, but he was accommodating, as always. I started by asking if there are pitches he eliminates from his repertoire at altitude or pitches he relies on more at sea level.

“I guess the answer to that question is yes,” he said. “Do I eliminate? No. I know what happens to the spin or the bite, so to speak, on my off-speed pitches here compared to other places. The break size is going to be different. Sometimes the speed is different. So I’ve had to learn how to adapt my sights, my vision of where I’m releasing the ball, to make sure that I compensate for the lack of bite. So I guess what I’m trying to say is when we leave here, my rotation seems a little tighter and I get better snap on my pitches.

“All that means is I have to adapt and focus more on locating here and when I do mix speeds, to make sure that the arm speed’s there and the approach is extremely aggressive. When you’re feeling good with your spin, sometimes you can get away with sort of flipping one in there. You can’t do that here. That kind of got me in trouble tonight, actually.

“So I think it’s just an adaptability of focus. Is it a change? Yes. How significant it is I think is up to the person.”

Although Rockies pitchers tend to avoid talking about the effects of altitude publicly for fear of sounding like they’re making excuses, they do discuss it frequently among themselves. Complicating those discussions is the fact that altitude seems to act differently on each pitcher and each pitch. There are few rules that work for everybody.

“We’ve all talked about it in here,” Belisle said. “Some people have their arsenal change in similar fashions and some are a little different. So I think it’s up to the individual to really acknowledge what you have and what’s going on and just really focus on (keeping the ball) lower and understanding that the break will be a little different.

“Five out of seven of the guys in the bullpen may say their curve ball suffers, but two of them may say, ‘Actually my curve ball’s great; it’s my slider that has problems.’

“But that’s the same phenomenon as one guy can throw the exact same baseball and it feels like a bowling ball and the other guy, it feels light. It’s what he can do with the snap. So there is a change. It’s just something you have to adapt to.”

The modern emphasis on radar guns and computerized strike zones on television may give fans the impression that pitching is science, but it’s much more art. From one outing to another, a pitcher’s feel of his pitches may change dramatically. Altitude adds yet another variable.

Breaking pitches are more vulnerable because, lacking the velocity of the fastball, they sit up begging to be crushed if they lack their customary snap. But the lighter air can also affect the downward plane of the sinker, or two-seam fastball, leaving it, like the breaking ball, sitting up too high in the strike zone.

“It could be all of them, but I think everybody’s more affected with the breaking balls, the off-speed pitches,” Belisle said. “The fastball/sinker does change a little bit as well. Sometimes it may run instead of really corkscrew down.

“Then when you go on the road, you’ve got to kind of make sure and re-set because all of a sudden the bite’s a little more, so the same pitch that was a strike for my curve ball may be a ball if I’m throwing it at the exact same release point, so I’ve got to kind of change that.”

So you have a different release point at altitude than you do at sea level?

“Yeah, because my sight has to change. We’re talking very small.”

Is that a mechanical adjustment?

“Well, not so much a mechanical adjustment as it is the timing of when I release the pitch, when I say it’s a different release point.”

So it’s the same arm slot, but you may have to release the ball a little earlier or a little later?

“Correct. I may have to get rid of the ball a little later in Colorado and not even think about it so much on the road. But if I’m here for a week and then go on the road, while I’m playing catch, I’ll get a feel of, OK, that one was a strike in Colorado but now it’s a ball because it bit a lot more.”

So the pitch that was a strike in Colorado ends up in the dirt at sea level because of the added break?

“Right. But my biggest thing is, it’s not a crutch. It’s not an excuse. It’s just, it is what it is. It’s a condition that we have to work with. The same thing if you get a ball that the rub is really bad or if you’ve got a wet ball that day.

“There’s plenty of things that are thrown at us to try to gain inconsistency in this game. I don’t think we need to allow any of this to be an excuse or a crutch because we’re here long enough to where we can adapt to it. It’s significant, it is something there, but you just have to really be on top of yourself to work on it every day, understand what you need to do.”

I asked if Belisle has noticed fellow pitchers who have trouble dealing psychologically with these constant adjustments.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I know we all talk about it. I know anybody who’s new that comes over here in the past four years that I’ve been here, we talk about it and address it. But that’s up to the individual. We as teammates need to make sure we’re not using anything as an excuse, but whatever cards you’re dealt, whatever you feel that day, you’ve got to figure out and adapt how you’re going to get the guy out because you sure as heck can.

“Maybe some people can use it as a negative, but I try to look at it as an opportunity. If I can become so adept at understanding what my pitches are doing, make those adjustments here and then go on the road and feel like I’ve got even more snap with better, nasty, slow-speed pitches, and then we come here and I can adapt to that again, where a visiting team comes in and really has a tough time because they don’t play here, I feel like that’s an opportunity for me to learn myself better and really take it as a mental challenge to be tougher, because I will not allow excuses. So I look at it more as an opportunity. It’s a fight, but it’s an opportunity.”

I pointed out the dramatic deterioration in the numbers of all four potential starters — Guthrie, Moscoso, Outman and Chatwood — brought in from other organizations this year. These were adequate major league pitchers last season who suddenly can’t get anybody out, I said.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell you,” Belisle said. “I mean, pitching’s not easy, period. But all I can say is acknowledge that with most people there is a change in your stuff. And we all have to adapt and be on top of that. You have to do that to the best of your ability and look at it as an opportunity and do not use it as an excuse.”

You can see where the need for constant adjustments in release point would seem like a nightmare from an organizational point of view. The goal of many pitching coaches is to get their charges to find the right delivery mechanics and then repeat them over and over until they become second nature. If you’re constantly fiddling with your release point depending on where you’re pitching, that consistency of repetition is impossible to achieve.

Many fans point to opposing pitchers who come to Colorado and dominate in a single outing — say, C.J. Wilson of the Angels before the All-Star break or Cole Hamels of the Phillies on Sunday. But pitching at Coors once a year is very different from pitching there on a regular basis. Mike Hampton succeeded for half a season before crashing. Ubaldo Jimenez had a sensational first half in 2010 (15-1, 2.20), wilted in the second half (4-7, 3.80) and has not been the same since. It’s not clear if the wear is more mental or physical.

At the All-Star game, Wilson said he basically eliminated his two-seam fastball in his lone start here because he had more confidence in the lateral movement of his cutter than the downward movement of his sinker at altitude. But in a park that puts such a premium on keeping the ball down, the Rocks as an organization can hardly afford to eliminate the two-seamer from the staff repertoire.

Still, as Guthrie demonstrated Saturday night, it can take an inning to get a feel for the release point that keeps the ball down and one bad inning at Coors can be all it takes to ruin a start.

It’s also probably easier for relievers such as Belisle to make those constant adjustments since each outing is so much shorter than it is for starters. This is one of the reasons for the Rockies’ recent pitch limits on starters — to make their focus more like that of a reliever.

It’s not clear whether the failure of any Rockies starter to sustain success over a career is a function of the extra physical effort required to make balls move at altitude, the potential for injury created by constantly changing release points or the mental strain of the battle.

But Belisle’s description of his mental approach suggests that perhaps the most important attribute of a pitcher donning a Rockies uniform is mental discipline — the ability to view pitching at altitude as a challenge rather than a conspiracy to ruin his numbers. Consciously or subconsciously, the pitchers who have failed here most spectacularly seemed to blame altitude, not themselves, for their issues. Belisle, by contrast, has been a better pitcher here than he was during his previous stint in Cincinnati.

This remains the essential dilemma of big-league baseball a mile high. The effects of altitude are real; any honest pitcher will tell you that. To succeed here, a pitcher has to adjust for those effects and adjust back at sea level without resorting to the defense mechanism of blaming all those changes when things go wrong. It’s a tough psychological line to walk, and it’s tougher still to predict how any particular pitcher will deal with it before he gets here. Twenty years in, the Rocks remain a long way from a solution.


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.


At 38, the Toddfather can still walk off with the best of them

Make all the old man jokes you want. The Rockies have played five home games on the young season. Jamie Moyer, 49, has given them their longest start at Coors Field. And Todd Helton, 38, has provided the margin of victory the last two nights with clutch late-inning heroics.

For all their talent and youth, the kids could learn something from these old-timers.

For much of Saturday night, it looked as though the Rocks would finally pay for the inability of any starting pitcher other than Moyer to make it to the fifth inning.

Monday, in the home opener, Jhoulys Chacin started and pitched four innings. After a day off Tuesday, Jeremy Guthrie started Wednesday and lasted only 3 1/3. Moyer started Thursday and went 5 2/3. Juan Nicasio started Friday and managed just 2 2/3.

The bullpen handled all this with aplomb. It pitched 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball in relief of Nicasio as the offense erased a 6-2 deficit. It pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Moyer. In fact, the bullpen had a collective earned-run average of 1.71 going into Saturday night’s monsoon.

But when no starter manages to go six innings all week, it catches up to you eventually. So the Rocks were encouraged when Chacin showed up with better command Saturday night than he had in the home opener Monday. He was far from dominant, but he fought through four innings, giving up one run and throwing 64 pitches in a steady rain that had delayed the start of the game for sixteen minutes.

With the Rocks leading 5-1 and three outs from an official game, umpire Mike Winters called for the tarpaulin. Seventy-one minutes of rain delay later, Chacin’s night was done and the bullpen was looking at yet another short start.

“The third and fourth inning was really hard raining and the fifth was pretty much the same, I think it was slower than it was in the third or fourth, so I didn’t know why they called it,” Chacin said afterward.

“The very unfortunate thing for us was the fact that the game was stopped after the fourth inning,” manager Jim Tracy added. “And the amount of time that we were down, obviously we lose Jhoulys. And if you back up to yesterday, you got 2 2/3 from the starter yesterday. And if you go back to Opening Day, we had a short start.”

Esmil Rogers and Rex Brothers had each pitched the two previous nights. Matt Belisle had pitched Friday night and two of the previous three. So when play resumed Tracy went with Josh Roenicke, who promptly surrendered a three-run homer to Arizona’s Miguel Montero. As the rain resumed its steady beat, Tracy was forced to call on Belisle again, trying to nurse the one-run lead that remained, thinking the game might be called anytime.

“That’s our job, is to take the ball when we’re asked,” Belisle said. “The biggest thing is the preparation before and the expectation and anticipation that we may have to do this instead of sitting around going, ‘Oh, gosh, we’re in there again?’ In other words, honing the edge a little bit with how much we throw before the game, monitoring that and just understanding that we may have to pick up some innings.”

Matt Reynolds and Belisle would have gotten through the sixth, but Troy Tulowitzki committed two throwing errors, losing his grip on two wet balls. One of the resulting baserunners scored, tying the game. From there, the Diamondbacks managed another run off of Brothers, pitching for a third straight day, in the seventh. They put up another off Tyler Chatwood in the eighth.

The Rocks had been three outs from two straight wins over the division favorites and a .500 record. Now they were looking at a 7-5 deficit with time running out. On a dank, miserable night, it looked like they were going to get a miserable result.

They got one back in the eighth on a single by Tyler Colvin, who had homered earlier, and a double by Eric Young Jr. But as they entered the bottom of the ninth, the rain cascading down nearly five hours after the scheduled 6:05 start, they still trailed by one. On the mound was Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, who held the longest active save streak in the majors, 28 straight, dating to last July.

Trying to come inside to leadoff man Marco Scutaro, Putz hit him in the shoulder. Scutaro, 36, went down, then scrambled quickly to his feet and sprinted to first pumping his fist and looking into the home dugout as if to tell his mates they weren’t finished yet.

But Jason Giambi popped out and Tulowitzki struck out. As Helton approached the plate, he represented the Rocks’ last chance.

“I was just trying to get a grip on the bat at that point,” he said. “It was raining pretty hard at the time.”

Putz’s 1-1 offering was a fastball up and in. Helton turned on it and lifted a towering fly ball down the right field line. Arizona right fielder Justin Upton ran to the corner and set up to catch it. At the last minute he flung his head back, watching it nestle into the stands above him just inside the foul pole. Helton jumped for joy and his teammates streamed out of the dugout in the pouring rain to greet him at home plate.

“I didn’t think I hit it out,” he said. “I thought I hit it a little too high. But I’ll take it.”

“When he hit that ball, I couldn’t believe he kept it fair,” said Belisle, one of Helton’s closest friends on the team. “And then seeing him round those bases, I was just smiling ear to ear. I know that after that rain delay, coming back up, mentally it can be a struggle sometimes. But he’s a big game player and he’s been swinging the bat really well. I don’t think he’s faced Putz that much. It was just an incredible swing by a great player.”

It was also the second straight night that Helton delivered the game-winner. His eighth-inning double Friday night off Arizona’s Bryan Shaw drove in Carlos Gonzalez to break a 6-6 tie.

“Yeah, what about that?” Helton said in his usual deadpan. “I keep it in perspective. There’ll be days where I don’t get the big hit.”

If the Rocks end up contending this year, this will be one of those early-season mettle testers to remember. On a nasty night, after a week in which the bullpen had picked up the starting rotation time after time, the relievers finally faltered and the offense picked them up.

Indeed, a lineup featuring such golden oldies as Helton, Scutaro and Ramon Hernandez went into Saturday night’s game second in the National League in batting.

“It’s the whole old-school meaning of team,” Belisle said. “It’s what we do, and we’ll have to do it again. The great thing about our group is there’s no egos, so whatever Skip needs us to do, we’ll do.”

Skip was suitably impressed.

“That’s a great win,” Tracy said. “I’ve seen signs of this from this club, and I mean that. They have a moxie about them.”

In his sixteenth season, Helton leads the Rocks in RBIs in the early going with eight. This game had nowhere near the significance of the nightcap against the Dodgers on Sept. 18, 2007 when a similar walkoff homer against Takashi Saito helped launch the Rockies’ miraculous run to the World Series. But Helton’s celebration on the base path and the mob that greeted him at home plate were reminiscent of that night.

Informed he had shown that sort of emotion again, Helton replied, characteristically, “Yeah, sorry about that.”

Belisle smiled.

“I was giving him a little joshing for that, too,” he said. “It’s a big knock in a big game. I’m glad that everybody’s putting emotion and focus into each game. I don’t care if it’s April. Win every night.”