Tag Archives: Walt Weiss

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.


Shake, rattle and roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rockies learning how to take a punch

There are baseball games that appear to tell a larger story than a 1/162nd slice of a languorous season, and last Thursday’s looked like one of those for the Rockies.

They were facing a Giants team that swept them early in the season and had beaten them nine straight times dating to last year. Seven of their next 10 were going to be against San Francisco, sort of a lie detector test for a Rockies team that had roared out of the gate. If the Giants did what they did last year, winning 14 of 18, or the year before that, winning 13 of 18, the Rocks’ early-season pretensions to contention would do what they did in 2011 — crash and burn in May.

So they rocked Matt Cain for three home runs in the first three innings, including back-to-back jacks from the past and the future — 39-year-old first baseman Todd Helton and 22-year-old third baseman Nolan Arenado — handing Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin a 6-0 lead.

Chacin promptly gave it all back, surrendering five runs in the fourth and leaving in the sixth with the score tied and the eventual winning runs on base. Following its early explosion, the Rockies’ offense shut down, collecting one hit after the third inning against Cain, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo.

It was the most discouraging loss of the year. Not only had the Rocks seemed to prove they couldn’t beat the Giants on a bet, they had confirmed the worst suspicions about their character as a team — frontrunners who fold when the going gets sticky. After winning 13 of their first 17 games and spending 16 days in first place, the 8-6 defeat dropped them to 21-20 and third place.

So how did they respond to this soul-sapping loss? They swept the next three from the Giants, battering Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito for 20 runs and getting a six-inning shutout of their own from Juan Nicasio, who, prior to that start, had been flirting with re-education camp.

“I think our team showed who they were early on,” said first-year manager Walt Weiss. “Had some opportunities to overcome some things and they did that. That’s why I don’t get too down when we struggle, because I know that that’s part of the deal up here. You’re going to get beat up a little bit in this league, but I have confidence that our guys will do what they did in the last three days. When it looks like they start to slide, they turn it around. They’ve done it a handful of times already this year. That’s a great trait to have.”

Many fans still base their expectations on the larger sample size of the past two seasons, but the Rocks’ weekend bounce-back against their nemesis over that span was the best sign so far that things actually might be different this year.

“I really think this bunch is extremely competitive and we’re sick of losing,” said reliever Matt Belisle, part of the four-man shutout in Sunday’s 5-0 series finale. “And these Giants have beat up on us quite a bit and we want to turn the tables.”

With the additions of Arenado and catcher Wilin Rosario to the core of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer and Helton, the middle of the Rocks’ order has grown truly prodigious. They lead the National League in runs (221 in 44 games, an average of five per game), home runs (58), batting average (.272) and slugging percentage (.445).

Individually, Tulowitzki leads the league in runs batted in (37) and ranks third in batting average (.336). Gonzalez is tied for fourth in home runs (10) and is fifteenth in batting (.308). Rosario has nine homers, Fowler and Tulo have eight apiece and the disabled Cuddyer has seven.

So, yeah, they can rake. But the big story so far is on the mound, where the Rocks have cut more than a run off their worst-in-baseball staff earned-run average of a year ago. After posting a 5.22 staff ERA and earning laughingstock honors with rotation and pitch count experiments in 2012, the Rocks rank in the middle of the pack so far this year with a staff ERA of 3.85. That includes a 3.04 mark out of the bullpen, fifth-best in the NL.

Any team that plays half its games at Coors Field is going to be challenged to be competitive nationally in pitching statistics, and the Rocks have never finished a season with a staff ERA lower than 4.00 in their 20-year history. Still, injuries were a big part of the story last year. Chacin, Nicasio and Jorge De La Rosa were all out most of last season, and their return has made a huge difference, as has replacing Jeremy Guthrie with Jon Garland as the veteran free agent. A team that had 27 quality starts all last year has 18 less than two months into the season.

It also presents them with exactly the opposite of last year’s problem. They have too many starters. Tyler Chatwood, called up for a third spot start when Jeff Francis suffered a pulled groin, deserves to be in the rotation. Not only is he 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA, he’s done damage with the bat (he’s a former shortstop) and demonstrated a competitive grittiness that shows up well among the Rockies’ many nice guys.

But whose spot does he take? A week ago you might have said either Francis or Nicasio, who were struggling. But Francis gave up one run in six innings in his last start before going on the DL and Nicasio gave up none in six Sunday against the Giants.

Of the five starters, only De La Rosa has an ERA below 4.00, so the rotation is not exactly impenetrable. And Drew Pomeranz, the prize of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, will be knocking on the door soon enough. He’s 6-0 with a 3.22 ERA for Triple-A Colorado Springs.

Nicasio remains the most enigmatic of the existing starters. There are those who think he’s better suited to the bullpen considering he’s basically a one-pitch pitcher. But when Nicasio’s fastball is electric and down, he doesn’t need much variety. Lately, he had been building up vast pitch counts early in games trying to be too fine. So Weiss paired him Sunday with veteran catcher Yorvit Torrealba.

“I just say, ‘Whatever I put down, you throw it,'” Torrealba explained when asked about his pre-game instructions for Nicasio.

“I mean, I don’t try to take any credit or anything, but I told him I just want him to go out there and have fun. I don’t want him to think at all. Just go ahead and throw it and execute down. And then, whatever happens, happens. If you get killed, blame it on me, I don’t care. I just want him to throw strikes and see what happens. And he did.”

Considering what they went through last year, deploying starters who clearly weren’t ready because everybody else was hurt, it’s a nice problem to have.

Things can change in a heartbeat, of course. The Rocks conclude the current homestand with three against the Diamondbacks, who are now in first place, leading both the Rocks and Giants by a game, and then travel to San Francisco for three more with the Giants. Those first couple of days at sea level after a homestand are still a challenge for them. The last time they hit the road, the Cardinals threw consecutive complete-game shutouts at them.

Still, the weekend demonstrated something about this year’s Rocks that wasn’t all that clear before: They can take a punch.


Time to test Rockies’ resolve

An oft-quoted truism of baseball says good pitching beats good hitting, although the practical reality may be closer to the remark attributed to Bob Veale, the 6-foot-6-inch left-hander who pitched for the Pirates and Red Sox in the 1960s and ’70s:

“Good pitching will beat good hitting anytime, and vice versa.”

In other words, as Roseanne Roseannadanna would say, it’s always something. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.

The Rockies went into their weekend series in St. Louis leading the National League in batting and runs, but there were signs of trouble. They had lost three of their previous four games, scoring a total of eight runs.

After the first two games against the Cardinals — a one-hit, complete-game shutout by Shelby Miller and a two-hit, complete-game shutout by Adam Wainwright — they have lost four in a row, scoring a total of three runs in 36 innings. The last time they scored was the first inning of their final game against the Yankees, meaning they take a 26-inning scoreless streak into Sunday’s series finale in St. Louis.

“Wainwright commanded everything,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said of Saturday’s second consecutive 3-0 defeat. “I think it was a combination of things — us going a little cold and at the same time running into a couple pitchers that aren’t missing.”

Everybody likes to beat up on Rockies pitching, but it has surrendered just three runs in each of the last four games — and the club is 0-4 over that span. Troy Tulowitzki, their leading hitter, missed two of the four with tightness in his groin. Michael Cuddyer, their second-leading hitter, missed the last three with a bulging disc in his neck that sent him to the disabled list Saturday.

Between Eric Young’s first-inning single off Miller on Friday night and Todd Helton’s fifth-inning base on balls from Wainwright on Saturday afternoon, 40 consecutive Rockies batters were retired, tying a major league record.

Between Young’s hit and Nolan Arenado’s eighth-inning single Saturday, which broke up Wainwright’s no-hit bid, the Rocks went 0-for-49 at the plate. Fifty consecutive batters, counting Helton’s walk, went hitless.

Dexter Fowler is 1-for-21 over the past six games — he broke an 0-for-20 skein in his final at-bat against Wainwright — his batting average falling from .310 to .264.

Carlos Gonzalez is 0-for-15 since homering against the Yankees on Tuesday, accounting for both runs in a 2-0 victory, the last time the Rocks won. His average has slipped from .322 to .288.

In the space of ten days, the Rocks have gone from first place with a record of 17-11 to third place at 19-17. The first of the bandwagon fans are already looking for landing spots. After all, we’ve seen this before, right?

In 2011, the Rocks were in first place from April 6 through May 10. By the end of May, they were below .500 and in third. After going 17-8 in April, they went 8-21 in May to give it all back. They ended up 73-89.

This year, they went 16-11 in April. In May so far, they are 3-6.

They are off to an excellent start on the mound, where they had the best bullpen earned-run average in the National League before Josh Outman gave up a single run to the Cards on Saturday. A team that had 27 quality starts all last year has 15 already.

They were off to an excellent start offensively before this last week, when they faced good Yankees pitching and great Cardinals pitching.

“Both guys we’ve faced these first two games have pitched on the edges of the strike zone with all their stuff, which makes it very difficult,” Weiss said.

So now comes the test. Are the Rocks tougher than they’ve been the last couple of years? Will they shrink from adversity and fold up their tent or will they fight back?

“These guys do their work every day,” Weiss said. “They prepare for the game. Everyone gets beat up a little bit in this game at some point. But our guys will keep grinding and will come out and try to turn it around tomorrow.”

They get another good Cardinals starter, Jaime Garcia (2.25 ERA), on Sunday. Then they move on to Wrigley Field, where the Cubs are struggling but will deploy three starters who are pitching pretty well — Travis Wood (2.33), Carlos Villanueva (3.02) and Jeff Samardzija (3.70).

Baseball may seem understandable merely by swimming through its ocean of numbers, but at times like these numbers are not that helpful. The numbers say the Rocks are pretty good. They have hit well and they have pitched well in the season’s early going. But it is not yet enough of a sample size to tell you much.

Now they face some adversity. Cuddyer, one of their best hitters in the early going, is on the shelf.

“You feel like you’re leaving your teammates, but it is what it is,” said Cuddyer, who has had issues with his neck twice before during his career. “Injuries happen and you can’t do anything about it. You just try and get healthy and get back on the field.”

Helton, their other veteran leader, is no longer capable of leading the team offensively. So the weight falls on the younger stars — Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Fowler.

Can they carry it? Is this the fragile team of the past couple of seasons or has it grown up enough to bring a little fight to the party?

We’ll know soon enough.


Rockies raking, rolling in early going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, specifically, was he referring to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ruminations on putting the band back together

Recapturing the good old days is a wistful preoccupation, caught somewhere between tradition and nostalgia. But it’s not always as desperate and hopeless as cynics suggest, particularly in the world of sports, where tradition still matters.

The Broncos brought back John Elway, to promising results so far, and Joe Sakic is in training for a similar second act with the Avalanche. So the Rockies’ reach back into their own brief history for a new manager and hitting coach seems less like desperation than finally staking a claim to an organizational identity.

They may not have Hall of Fame legends like Elway and Sakic to call on, but the Rocks do have a cheerful band of brothers that remembers when big league baseball was new in Colorado and everybody was too thrilled to complain about its . . . uh . . . idiosyncrasies.

When I asked Dante Bichette, the old Blake Street Bomber and new hitting coach, if it felt like they were getting the band back together, he laughed.

“Absolutely, man!” he said. “Bring ’em on back. Every organization has their guys. The Rockies don’t have a long history. We don’t have Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, but this is what we’ve got and we understand what it was like in the beginning, how special these fans are. So absolutely, I want to perform for fans there because they were so good to me. That’s a little motivation there.”

Bringing back Bichette and Walt Weiss, the Rocks’ new manager, is about more than connecting with a happier time. After all, the art of pitching, the most inscrutable and important of baseball’s secrets, was at least as mysterious then as it is now, particularly here, a mile above sea level, where breaking balls betray their name and fly balls, like field goals, fly a little bit farther.

No, it’s also about putting today’s club in the hands of people familiar with the issues unique to Colorado, people unafraid to confront them.

“I believe you’ve got to be tougher and you’ve got to be smarter to play here than just about anyplace else,” Weiss said last week as he became the Rocks’ sixth manager and their first former player to take the job.

“That could be a badge of honor, but we’ve got to be smart, too, about the grind of the game here — recovery here and all those things that there’s been a lot of research on, particularly lately. Those are all factors about how you run a club. But you’ve got to be tougher, and more than anything, mentally tougher, and smarter than most. That’s something we should take pride in and we should embrace.”

Weiss thus becomes the Rockies’ first manager to acknowledge and confront on Day One the unique challenges of playing 81 games a season at Coors Field. For most of their history, Rocks managers have believed that ignoring these issues, or at least not talking about them, was the best approach.

The theory went something like this: If you acknowledge publicly the challenges that no one inside the sport denies, you’ve given your players a ready excuse when they fail. This theory was propounded in the organization’s early days, before data piled up to confirm the message that intuition and observation had already delivered. So, in a reflexive nod to the macho culture of athletics, the Rocks’ message to their players was simple: Ignore it, be mentally tough, overcome it. Heck, maybe it will go away.

The last two seasons, and particularly this last one, the worst in franchise history, changed all that. For one thing, a management team that has been around for more than half the club’s history was as surprised as anyone by their charming ballpark’s sudden nostalgia for horror movies of the past. Mike Hampton was back, but his name was Jeremy Guthrie. Thankfully, the lesson he repeated — some pitchers just can’t handle it here — came at a much cheaper cost.

In the face of a debilitating drought across the western United States, with forest fires raging, the ball flew as it hadn’t since the humidor was installed at Coors Field in 2002. The Rocks had their own little version of climate change, quite a challenge for sports executives whose analytical skills had previously been focused principally on bullpens and batting cages.

The players, of course, have been dealing with all this stuff for years. They just didn’t talk much about it because that was against club policy. It made you weak.

Even aside from the screamingly obvious — the great Greg Maddux became thoroughly ordinary at Coors Field, as if the green seats were made of kryptonite — the symptoms were largely ignored. An ESPN blogger wrote recently that Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is clearly not a superstar because he hits only at Coors Field, citing his .234 batting average on the road last season.

Of course, if you’ve followed the Rocks for more than about five minutes, you know this has been a pattern for 20 years. Home/road splits of more than 100 points, unheard of elsewhere, are routine here. Bichette was working on this before anybody. Back in the 1990s, he took a pitching machine on the road with him — general manager Bob Gebhard called it a curveball machine — trying to acclimate to sea-level breaking balls so his performance wouldn’t fall off a cliff each time the Rocks hit the road.

“I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but the breaking ball . . . you see ’em on the road,” he said this week. “You go on the road and they throw breaking balls. And then at home, it doesn’t quite break. There’s where the problem lies. I don’t think it’s from the light air as far as the ball traveling, it’s more in the breaking balls that are hanging up and they get hit harder. The home/road, I don’t care who you bring in there, they struggle a little bit on the road. So there’s something there and I’ve just tried to figure that out. The curveball machine’s a good idea. I’ve got some other ideas that hopefully we can get them to understand that.”

Weiss’ plan is pretty much the opposite of the organization’s approach in the past. Rather than ignore or downplay the difficulties of playing at Coors, he wants to recognize them and emphasize them in the minds of visitors — sort of the way the Nuggets remind visitors of the thin air with elevation signs before running them into exhaustion.

“I think we’ve got to understand the vulnerability of the opposing pitcher,” Weiss said. “They’re more vulnerable here than they are anywhere else. I don’t care what they say; that’s a fact. I played here as an opposing player with some of the best that have ever stepped on the mound and I know what their mindset is. So that’s got to be our mentality, that we need to exploit that.”

He was referring to the great Braves staffs that included Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who welcomed most challenges but dreaded pitching at Coors Field. Of course, the Rocks can take advantage of opposing pitchers only if their own are far better equipped to deal than they were last season.

“That’s going to be part of this process,” Weiss said. “With some arms getting healthy, that’s going to help us. We’ve got some young arms. No doubt they’re going to have to grow up at the major league level quickly, but we’ve got some young power arms . . . .

“Learning how to pitch here, that’s something that we’ll spend a lot of time on so that we have a plan, a better plan than the opposing team is going to have, when they take the mound. Again, we’ve got to look at it as an advantage for us. That’s how we’ve got to approach all the aspects of playing here. The challenges are unique here, but so are the advantages, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Frankly, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s clearly the attitude the club needs to take. Only a much larger swath of history will tell us if the challenges Weiss referred to can be overcome with any consistency. It was only three years ago that the Rocks had the best starting rotation in the National League when measured by advanced metrics that take into account ballpark factors. Five pitchers — Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook — started all but seven of the team’s 162 games in 2009, and the Rocks went to the playoffs. Within two years, all five had either broken down physically or regressed dramatically.

Why? Twenty years of data suggested two things to Rockies management. First, pitchers generally put more strain on their shoulders and elbows here trying to make pitches bite and cut the way they do at sea level. That doesn’t have any long-term effect on visitors who pitch here only occasionally, but over time, for pitchers making half their starts here, it leads to more injuries. Second, the frustration so obvious in Hampton and Guthrie manifests itself more subtly in other psyches, producing more nibbling, more fear of throwing strikes.

So last year the front office came up with the much-maligned four-man, paired pitching rotation in which the starter was limited to roughly 75 pitches and a second pitcher was designated to replace him and carry the game to the point where the bullpen would normally take over. The pitch limit was designed to encourage strike throwing and discourage fatigue-related injuries. This was an approach that had been discussed as far back as a decade ago, when the concerns were still mostly intuitive. Bob McClure, then the pitching coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs and later pitching coach for the Royals and Red Sox, was one of the first members of the Rockies organization to think about new approaches to pitching here.

Unfortunately, the Rocks implemented the plan during a season in which they had lost virtually their entire starting rotation to injury. The kids they put in their place weren’t ready, and no system was going to compensate for starting pitching that finished with a league-worst earned-run average of 5.81.

The organization also got pushback from its own clubhouse, including manager Jim Tracy, prompting it to give assistant general manager Bill Geivett a new title — director of major league operations — along with a desk in the clubhouse. There were going to be more experiments to deal with the challenges at Coors, and GM Dan O’Dowd thought the club needed better communication and coordination between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel.

Tracy resigned at season’s end rather than honor the final year of his contract under these circumstances. The new arrangement was considered something of an overhang on the search for his replacement. As a novice, Weiss isn’t worried about it.

“To be honest, it’s not a great concern of mine,” he said. “Geivo I look at as a great resource for me. He knows the game well, he’s got a sharp mind, he knows our club really well, he’s a guy I can lean on. There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for me. Regardless of how much time I’ve spent around the game and 21 years at the big league level, still I’ve never sat in the manager’s seat. I’m not afraid to say that. He’s a guy that I’ll lean on as well as other guys on our staff until I find a rhythm of certain aspects of the job. It’s not an issue for me; it’s not a concern.”

On the offensive side, the Rocks have bounced from one extreme to the other over the past few years. Don Baylor, their original manager, was replaced as hitting coach two years ago because he was considered too laid back. Carney Lansford was replaced this fall because he was considered too Type A, too pushy.

Bichette, the Rocks hope, will be just right. For veterans who know what they’re doing, he said, he may do little more than organize batting practice. With younger players who need instruction, he plans to be more active. One of Bichette’s greatest strengths as a player was hitting with two strikes, a skill he believes might improve the Rocks’ clutch hitting generally.

“You’ve got to let the ball get a little deeper with two strikes,” he said. “To me, two-strike hitting and hitting in the clutch go hand in hand because when you’re sitting with two strikes, that pitcher’s trying to punch you out. He’s throwing his nastiest pitch on the corner, trying to get you to chase. And it’s very similar when you get guys in scoring position. Pitchers aren’t coming to you. They’re trying to get you to chase. So those things I kind of felt like I figured out a little bit, and hopefully I can relay that to some of the younger players.”

There’s no substitute for experience. That’s a cliche because it’s true. Weiss and Bichette have no experience in their new jobs at the major league level. On the other hand, they are the first generation of leaders in uniform that also wore Rockies pinstripes as players. They have experience doing what they will now ask others to do.

Whether it actually helps remains to be seen. It is just one of the experiments the Rocks are likely to try in the coming year. But it is more than a feel-good exercise. It is more than looking back wistfully at a happier time. It is an attempt to recognize the unique challenges this club faces and to put it in the hands of men who know from personal experience exactly what they are.