Monday, May 28, 2007

Sweep Success

Well, well, whoda thunk? Certainly not me. The Rockies defied my gloomy predictions and actually managed to secure a three-game brooming of the Giants in their home park for the first time in franchise history. Whether in Candlestick, 3Com, SBC, AT&T, or whatever the hell else they've called the Phonebooth-on-the-Bay, the Rockies had never managed to sweep a series from the elderly incumbents, so that's a bit of largely irrevelant trivia that got smashed today. Taylor Buchholz turned in another fine start (7 innings, 3 runs, 2 of the latter coming on Barry Bonds' 746th career homer/prime Sportscenter highlight for five hours). Still, Buchholz isn't the first pitcher to give it up to Bonds by a long shot, no matter how annoying and egoistic the bovine-muscle-head may be, and he otherwise did a fine job of holding the Geriatrics down with a 90-92 mph cut fastball and a 75-82 mph curve that was as sharp as it had been all season. His breaking stuff was also working for him, and naturally, he got screwed out of the win after the bullpen allowed the Giants to tie it in the bottom of the eighth. But it's a step in the right direction for Buchholz, who was quietly on notice that he might be cut if he didn't step it up after some abysmal showings earlier in the year.

Although Rodrigo Lopez is returning from a forearm strain, Josh Fogg pulled his groin in his last start in Arizona and may or may not be ready to take the hill in his next turn, which would get at least one more start out of Buchholz. I'm ambivalent about which of the two, Fogg or Buchholz, I'd rather see in the last rotation spot, but I think I'd go for Buchholz. He has the unfortunate tendency to get shelled and be unable to do damage control if things spiral too far out of hand, but he's also much younger than Fogg and still able to "develop" (the Rockies' favorite word) into a competent starter. Fogg alternates good outings with total clunkers, and even when he pitches well, he either doesn't get enough run support or is left out there an inning too long and gives up what almost always turns out to be the deciding margin. His record is a slightly deceptive 1-5, as the hair-raising horror show that is the Rox bullpen has robbed him of a win following quality outings, but frankly, I've never felt comfortable with Fogg on the mound. He is mercurial to the umpteenth degree and has never showed any flashes of consistency -- he's perfectly capable of following up a 7-inning/1-run gem with a 4-inning/7-run turkey.

However, today, Buchholz's battery mate, Chris Iannetta, showed yet again that he should be the starting catcher and will probably have to take another seat to Yorvit Torrealba tomorrow. Aside from shaking off being hit in the head by Ryan Klesko's backswing, Iannetta rang up 2 RBI with a triple to bring the Rockies even at 1 in the fourth, and a double to extend their lead to 6-4 in the tenth. (After the 'pen blew it in the eighth, and the top of the order went quietly in the ninth, Todd Helton walked to lead off the tenth and was replaced with Kaz Matsui as a pinch-runner. He advanced to second on a wild pitch, but when Atkins blasted one that got reeled in on the warning track, he just stood there and failed to advance to third. This was precluded from being a grave mistake by Troy Tulowitzki, who has been the most clutch hitter in all of baseball this season, dumping the tiebreaking single into right field. Iannetta extended the lead with a double over Fred Lewis' head in right, and Brian Fuentes closed the door on the Giants in the bottom of the tenth for the sweep). But still, Iannetta has been suffering from a disgraceful lack of playing time, and although he has more than earned his start tomorrow (the last time Torrealba had 2 RBI in a game was in his dreams) I'll bet you anything that Hurdle will pen in Yorvit instead. He's decent for a backup catcher, but his manager for some bewildering reason thinks that he's the starter.

Iannetta's best buddy Tulowitzki has been outstanding this season, establishing himself as a legit contender for the NL Rookie of the Year, but Iannetta himself needs to play much more than he does. If this sounds like a familiar axe I'm grinding, I apologize, but he's young (only turned 24 in April) with a high upside. I understand that the management might be nervous about turning over their pitching staff to the guidance of a rookie catcher, but Iannetta's preparation is unmatched -- he constantly studies tape of hitters, reviews game plans, and as evidenced by today, called a fine game for a young and previously struggling starter. He knows the mechanics of baseball intimately and deserves so much more playing time than he sees. Yes, well. Axe ground, let's move on to the other topic at hand, which shall be addressed in brief: Adam Wainwright's next start.

As I mentioned in my post earlier questioning Tony La Russa's relationship with Wainwright, his next start would be telling, both in terms of pitch count and results. There was no arguing with either today, as Wainwright whipped through seven mostly tidy innings on an economical 81 pitches. However, the two runs he allowed came on a homer allowed to ex-teammate Ronnie Belliard, and since the Cards' offense was snoozing at the wheel again, he ended up a hard-luck loser despite an otherwise stellar line of 7 IP, 7 hits allowed, 2 earned runs, no walks, and six strikeouts. The bullpen combined to allow five runs in the late innings and the Cardinals' bats only mounted two, leaving the score as a final 7-2 and unfairly evening Wainwright's record at 4-4. To be fair, he's escaped with some wins due to the offense bailing him out at times, but c'est la baseball and I must confess to being a bit disappointed that he started today instead of yesterday -- if he'd gone then, it would line him up for the Thursday start in Denver, at the game which I happen to be attending. I was hoping to make it to more than one of the Cards/Rox games, but it looks as if I'll only catch the fourth and final tilt. Oh well. It'll be Brad Thompson vs. Aaron Cook, which concludes a favorable string of matchups for the Rox. The starters will go thusly:

Monday: Kip Wells vs. Jeff Francis. Wells collected his first win in nine tries last time out, but hopefully, the Rox can put an end to that, as he went eight previous starts while allowing four runs or more. Francis has been on fire recently, averaging 7 innings pitched and 2 or fewer runs allowed, and he won on May 7th when the Cards and Rockies faced off in St. Louis. He has been commanding his high-eighties fastball to both sides of the plate, he uses his changeup effectively to keep hitters from sitting on it, and his curve has been very sharp, so it shall be seen if he can extend the Rockies' winning streak to six at 1:05 pm today, almost exactly 12 hours from now (it's 1:11 AM as I type this. Yes, there's a reason I haven't seen the AM daylight hours since I came home. Well, almost). Francis has also enjoyed considerable success against the Redbirds, as he's 3-1 with a 2.27 ERA against them lifetime and pitched eight innings of shutout ball at Coors last July.

Tuesday: Braden Looper vs. Rodrigo Lopez. Looper, screw me sideways with a lunchbox, has been, to my considerable surprise, the ace of the rotation since Carpenter's demise. He is 6-3 with a 3.10 ERA, and although he had his one nuclear moment, it surprisingly didn't extrapolate into anything more. This game will be Rodrigo Lopez's return from the disabled list. He pitched quite well in two rehab starts in AAA Colorado Springs, mainly using his fastball but eventually getting a feel for his changeup and slider as well. He ended up 1-0 with a 2.38 ERA in AAA action, a good sign for a man who was a pleasant surprise in the early going, marking down one win with a 1.59 ERA. Hopefully the long layoff from big-league action hasn't dulled him down, as he may need it -- gasp -- with Looper on the mound.

Wednesday: Todd Wellemyer vs. Jason Hirsh. Wellemyer is making the start in place of Anthony Reyes, who was demoted to Memphis after falling out of the gate with a 0-8 record and a 6.08 ERA. He hasn't pitched quite as badly as those hair-raising numbers would indicate, but the Cards can't keep letting him go out there and lose games, whatever the cause may be. (In my worst case Cards rotation scenario, I predicted Reyes would get demoted, but I also spotted him 5 or 7 wins as well before that happened. Clearly, I was too generous). Wellemyer struggled to a 10-odd ERA with the Royals before being cut and picked up by his fellow Missourians, so the Rockies should try to get to a pitcher that throws a straight fastball, serviceable curve, and not much else. Hirsh has been a bit unpredictable as well, but registered a quality start in the opener against the Giants -- 3 earned runs, all coming in the first, through six innings. He was in the 100-pitch range in the fourth inning the last time he faced the Cards, so he's definitely going to need to improve his efficiency and come up with a new game plan. His changeup has been his out pitch in the season to date, but he can't sit on it -- he'll need to establish his fastball, as he was trying to do with middling success against the Giants, and complement it with his above-average curve.

Thursday: Brad Thompson vs. Aaron Cook. Thompson is one of the assorted remedies the Cards have tried to patch the gaping wound that Carpenter's absence left. He doesn't work that deep into games, as he's never lasted past six innings in an outing this year, and he's not particularly efficient, as 96 pitches only got him through 5.1 innings today against the Nationals. Both Thompson and Cook's signature pitch are their sinkers, which Thompson mixes with a standard fastball and curve. Cook occasionally will throw a fastball, but generally relies on an arsenal of sinker, changeup, and curve. When the sinker's working, he gets groundball outs like a machine -- same with Thompson. Cook's last outing was his complete-game victory against the Giants, and he's won four straight outings with a no-decision mixed in. This will clearly be the best game since I'll be right behind home plate with primo free tickets. Also, a couple Rockies homers wouldn't go amiss. Okay, I'll admit it, I'm rooting for the Rockies in this one. Just because my love for them is starting to climb to possibly unsafe levels. Also because a nice long winning streak that seems as if it may never end would be fairly awesome.

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