Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In Which Some Goes Wrong and More Goes Right

The Rockies confound me. Not that I think they'll really make the playoffs, that coffin was pretty much nailed shut by the disastrous umpiring and Jeff Francis's horrible start in Philadelphia, and their playoff odds currently stand at an oh-so-overwhelming 2.5%. After struggling to a split in the City of (Not-So) Brotherly Love, they went home and promptly lost two of three to the Marlins, who entered the series 20 games south of .500 to pretty much put the kibosh on any talk of pulling out a last-minute wild card. Then they faced their direct combatants in the standings, the Dodgers, who entered a four-game series at Coors (making up for a July rainout, the teams played a doubleheader last night) with a 13% chance of making the playoffs. So if the Rockies couldn't make the playoffs themselves, at least they could spoil it for the Dodgers, who have confounded them all season and have been responsible for their fair share of purple-and-black woe.

The Rox won the first game of the doubleheader in traditional fashion -- a strong performance from ace Francis (winning his 16th game of the season to tie for the franchise record, and setting a personal best of 10 strikeouts -- one-upping his 9-K performance from June 20 against the Yankees). They got RBIs from big man Matt Holliday and Todd Helton, and Brian Fuentes the much-maligned and the amazing Manny Corpas finished off the game by retiring the final six Dodgers batters in order. (Manny is 15-for-15 in save chances since taking over for Fuentes, who is fine as a setup guy but completely lacks the bulldog mentality needed to finish off save chances, especially in tough situations). This is a very patchwork bullpen showing signs of fatigue and overuse -- Matt Herges lost his rabbit foot and pixie dust, probably in unison, to explain his sudden nose-dive, and Affeldt has an ERA over 6.00 since the All-Star Break. Julio was serviceable earlier, even good, but the grind of the season caught up with him as well and he's now giving up runs like a sieve every time he's out there. Four or five months' worth of rest will be good for everyone, my mental state included. Boy, it's hard rooting for (and watching the hijinks of) this team day in and day out, but hey, it's not like I'm going to stop now.

Game 2, the nightcap, was far more dramatic, a thrilling, agonizing, and ultimately glorious see-saw of a battle. Fill-in starter Mark Redman naturally permitted three first-inning runs before the Rockies roared out of the gate against David Wells and got them right back to tie it at 3. Redman wasn't content in that state and had to turn it into a deficit again; the Rox went down 4-3 and stayed that way until the bottom of the fifth, in which Mad Matt Holliday struck again. After being rewarded for his insane play (six homers in seven days, 11 RBI) by being named the NL Player of the Week for the second time this season (at least he now has an extra luxury watch to give as a present) he went out and did it again, bashing a no-doubt moonshot of a two-run homer to edge the Rockies ahead to 5-4.

The lead didn't last long. Herges, now notably lacking his lucky charms and/or lucky underwear, immediately permitted a game-tying homer to James Loney in the top of the sixth. After he allowed the next two batters to reach via walk and single, Affeldt came in and managed to get two outs, falsely raising hopes that he would get out of it unscathed. Not so; the man is a former Kansas City Royal, after all. He coughed up a two-run triple to Tony Abreu, yanking the Dodgers up 7-5, and while the damage was minimized (for that inning, at least) it wasn't a good sign. Every game, as mentioned, is now must-win territory for the Rockies, and they've made it very hard on themselves by consistently losing to teams they should beat, while confoundingly beating teams they should lose to. In fact, they seem to play to the level of their competition -- they can look insipid, lifeless, and flat while dropping 3 of 4 to the Nationals (getting shut out in each of their losses) only to turn around and score 34 runs in the course of a three-game sweep of the Mets. It happens all the time. Some teams' fans look forward to the cupcake portion of their schedule, yet we as Rockies fans actually want them to be facing the stronger teams since they seem to play better when they do.

But never mind the digression. Jorge Julio came in for one inning, miraculously escaped, and then for some bewildering reason (he's already overworked and ineffective) was left out for a second one. He promptly yielded a solo shot to All-Star catcher Russell Martin to stretch the deficit to 8-5 going to the bottom of the eighth, and the Rockies had a tough task ahead of them in trying to crack Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito. Broxton has been solid as a setup man for the Bastards in Blue, and closer Saito's numbers are unworldly -- before last night, 39 for 42 in save chances, a 1.21 ERA, four homers permitted all year, and five games, and five saves, against the Rockies, who were 0-for-14 against him. You shall soon see the point of this numerology, but in the meantime...

The Rockies started the bottom of the eighth on a high note when Garrett Atkins fought off seven pitches and cracked a clean single to center. Then Ryan Spilborghs the super-sub stepped up and followed with his third hit of the night -- this one just happened to leave the yard and push the Rockies to within 8-7. Unfortunately, they couldn't get more that inning, as pinch-hitters Brad Hawpe and Yorvit Torrealba struck out, and after a quick and clean top of the ninth from a suddenly rejuvenated Ryan Speier, they headed to the bottom of the frame down one run against an elite closer who'd owned them all year.

Omar Quintanilla hit a hard shot, but unfortunately right at Saito, who snagged it for the first out. Troy Tulowitzki was called out on a questionable strike for the second out, leaving the bases empty and the Rockies down to their last gasp. But they had the big men coming up -- there was still a hope, even faint and flickering, and Holliday's fourth hit of the game, a sharp single to right, brought up Todd Helton, who's playing meaningful games in September for the first time in his long and illustrious career. Despite hitting well through the stretch, he had been 0-4 that night with a rally-killing double play, and his power numbers have taken a swan dive in general -- he only had 14 HR coming up to that at-bat.

Saito started with a ball; Helton fouled off pitches twice before lighting into one of Saito's nasty sliders and sending it over the scoreboard in right field, keeling Coors into delirium and Todd sprinting around the bases like a kid in little league. As he rounded third and headed for the plate, he ripped off his helmet, let out a roar of jubilation, and stage-dived into a mob of ecstatic teammates who hopped up and down, hugged, and thumped madly -- I have never seen Helton, the reserved veteran, so absolutely psyched. He'd just hit 300 career homers earlier, but No. 301 had to top them all -- it was a moment that Holliday, who jumped in the air and pumped both fists as the ball left the yard, said he'd never forget. It was an amazing finish, almost as great as their comeback on my birthday, an amazing moment for a veteran who's ground through so many disappointing and empty Septembers, to hit one that meant so much.

My sister was at this game with our friend Betsy (I have never been so jealous) and she said the atmosphere was amazing. Everyone was screaming, leapt to their feet when the ball left the yard, and she said she hugged Betsy, high-fived a complete stranger, and did a little dance as she was leaving -- the crowd roared and treated Helton to his second career curtain call, the other coming earlier this week. Outside the stadium, people were yelling, screaming, high-fiving as well -- if nothing else, even if this year closes like all the other ones, it is not the same. The Rockies have proven what this nucleus has the capability to do, and they have gotten the city of Denver to fall in love with them again. It has been (and still is) Broncos country for so very long that the Rockies, once they stopped being the new thing in town, failed to draw 60,000+ a night, and started all the abysmal seasons, were an afterthought, occasionally parodied or despaired by an ever-dwindling fanbase. But the city is genuinely excited about and in love with its baseball team again, and that just makes me so happy -- the thought of all this gives me the chills. Ah, September. Fall baseball. It's a beautiful thing.

On another Rockies note, as we thank the guys for this great season and eagerly anticipate 2008, the team has announced their intention to try super-prospect Ian Stewart at second base. I, for one, am fully behind this idea. The one (well, actually, two) problems being a) Stewart hasn't played second base since Little League, and b) at 6-3 and 215 lbs, is a big guy and only getting bigger. If he actually did make the conversion, he'd be the biggest 2B in the league, beating out Jeff Kent (6-2, 210) by an inch and five pounds. Although this probably isn't going to work, I find myself rooting very hard for it to somehow come through. First, it would give us an in-house solution to the second base vacancy, as Kaz Matsui may or may not be re-signed, and secondly, it would allow us to keep Garrett Atkins' bat. Atkins' defense at third is an iffy proposition, and since he's a natural first baseman, you'd have two defenders out of position in the infield -- Atkins at third and Stewart at second. However, the infield would have absolutely astronomic offensive totals (Helton-Stewart-Tulowitzki-Atkins is a serious helping of firepower) and would find a way to accommodate Helton, Stewart, and Atkins at once, which otherwise isn't possible; Atkins or Helton would have to be traded this off-season.

I regularly defend Atkins (or at least his offense, as his defense makes me roll my eyes too) and it's important to note that .290/23/103 is not chump change. Stewart replicating that in his rookie season would be a feat for the ages (not everyone is Tulowitzki here, people ;) ) and for next year at least, there would be a significant offensive drop-off with a still-aging Helton and a newbie Stewart. While Ian is certainly capable of this production, it may not come for a few years, and by that time, Holliday will have hit free agency and the Devil will have garnered him some insane contract with a high-profile East Coast team. If the Rockies really want to compete, 2008 and 2009 may be their best shots to do so if they keep the talented nucleus intact. They still need all that offensive cannonade as long as they keep playing in Denver and their pitchers hiccup accordingly, humidor or not, and there is no doubt Atkins knows how to hit. Damn, this Stewart-at-second is such a pipe dream... but please work. Please?

The other drum I must beat regards the candidacy of Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki for Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards. If they don't win, or at least finish in the top three, then it's a blatant act of highway robbery that yet again focuses on the popular markets instead of actual talent. The field of potential winners is deep, there is an elite crop of talent to deal with this year, but the numbers stack up every which way (and Tulo should get a Gold Glove as well, leading his position in fielding metrics).

Matt Holliday (season to date)
AB: 597
H: 202
BA: .338
HR: 33
R: 109
RBI: 126
OBP: .400
SLG: .601
OPS: 1.001
2B: 48
3B: 5

That is a monster season. Those numbers you see are good for first in the NL for batting average and RBI, third for slugging percentage, fourth for homers, OPS, runs, and eighth in on-base percentage. Not to mention that he's drastically improved his defense in left field. He leads the NL with 281 putouts, ranks third with a .990 fielding percentage (three errors in 291 chances) and second with a .912 zone rating, which measures how many balls a fielder is able to get to. If you don't believe me, just check out all the defensive video highlights he has this year -- it used to be all homers and they skated over the iffy fielding stats. He is a complete player, not at all a product of Coors (and that drives me nuts. How about bandboxes like Cincinnati, Arlington, and Philadelphia -- where Holliday hit four homers? Do those somehow count less?) You'd think, and yet people discount Rockies players out of hand because they play in Denver. Take a look at the numbers, people. Holliday received the most votes by his fellow players to the All-Star Game. They know what a wrecking ball he is, even if the fans at large haven't caught on yet.

And as for Tulo, his chief competition appears to be Ryan Braun, who has him beat in precisely two categories, home runs (30 to 21) and batting average (.323 to .295). Everywhere else, the numbers point to Tulo in a walk. He has more doubles (27 to 22) more runs scored (89 to 78) more RBIs (89 to 83) and half as many errors. Tulo has been a catalyst for the team after starting sub-Mendoza, set the NL record for homers by a rookie shortstop, and plays Gold Glove-worthy defense. His howitzer of an arm leads to regular swollen thumbs for first baseman Helton, and he can hit 90 with regularity on blistering throws from deep in the hole; it's just a joy to watch him play. Braun's defense, by comparison, can charitably be rated as poor. He has 22 errors, a sub-.900 fielding percentage, and achieves the difficult task of making Atkins (13 errors) look like Brooks Robinson. BBWAA writers, and ROY voters, love the surface offensive numbers, and it's true that Braun can mash like nobody's business and came up on May 25, instead of starting the season like Tulo has. However, if you want to rate the complete player, the true sparkplug and young star of a contending team, it's Tulo. And I'm not even saying this because of my permanent purple-colored glasses (or maybe I am). Troy puts in tremendous work each and every day, will go above and beyond the pale to get a win, and refuses to settle for losing or mediocrity. Simply put, he's the fire and inspiration the Rockies have been lacking for so long, and deserves to be rewarded for it.

I know this has been a long post already, but I would like to close by noting that since I am unable to attend Rockies games (clearly) I have made up (sort of) for the lack by attending two games, one Mets and one Yankees, since my return to school. (I will also be going to either one or two Mets games next week). Both times I went with a guy friend, and I tell you... I've been generally indifferent about the Mets, but the Yankees are seriously enough to make me almost actively like them. I can root for the Mets without feeling unclean (and I had to, since the one game I was at, they were playing Philly, and lost anyway.... the Mets are following the 2006 Cardinals script for the postseason by choking and threatening to squander it all before backing into the playoffs). The Yankees and their fans, however, are all such douchebags. They have an astounding arrogance and ignorance, strut around like they own the place (yeah, yeah, we've already heard about your 26 fucking championships, want to talk about the years since you've won your last one? 2004, for example? God, I hope there's a Curse of A-Rod or something that will prevent them from winning for another 79 years... such poetic justice, they could suffer through every inch of the agony that the Red Sox did).

I went to the Yankees/Orioles games with my friend Nick, and while we admittedly asked for it by sitting in the bleachers, the fans sang "Why Are You Gay?" to him to the tune of "YMCA," and incessantly chanted, "Ug-ly shirt!" pointing at his Jeremy Guthrie T-shirt. (I was wearing my Rox stuff -- Atkins shirt, Rockies jacket and hat, and was hoping so very much that they'd heckle me about rooting for a bad team, but they probably don't even remember that the Rockies exist, and maybe had enough sense to realize that I could, you know, point out that we swept them). Don't get me wrong, both of us found the heckling very amusing, but only in the way you find an irretrievably stupid person funny; because they just think they know so much and know actually nothing at all. Perhaps it's a rite of passage, but they are stupid, aggressively stupid, and strut around like they're still the kings of the world. The late-90's Yankees dynasty has passed, people, and besides, you root for the Evil Empire/Chevy/GMC of baseball, headed by an asshole owner and fronted by a calvacade of "twenty-five guys/twenty-five cabs" overpaid primadonnas. Oooh. Don't get me onto the topic of the Yankees, clearly; there is so much hatred here. Don't try to justify liking the Yankees to me. I understand that you're from New York so they're your hometown team, and they win a lot and it's fun to root for a winner, but that's it. And what about all the Yankees "fans" that have never even been to NY? They don't have an excuse at all. They are shameless front-runners, and should be ritually crucified as a warning to all others. (Same goes for non-resident Red Sox and Cubs fans as well. Besides, I don't even get why you'd want to root for the Cubs if you were from Chicago, much less anywhere else. See my diatribe against Cubs fans below).

In contrast, the Mets seem like more fun, have a few players that I could even like, and even though planes roar overhead every half-hour, their much-maligned Shea is less of a dump than the historic but shitty Stadium. Not that I'm going to suddenly start rooting for them, but if you had to make me pick a sports team from my adopted home state with a gun to my head, I'd take the Mets in a (New York) minute. I'm looking forward to going with Mary and possibly Steve (remember them?) next week, and will probably clap for the Mets since a) I'll be in Shea anyway, and b) who the hell wants to cheer for the Nationals? Even those from D.C.? Seriously.

Okay. Long post over. I feel a little better now. Or maybe I don't. I hate the Yankees. Oh well. I fiercely adore my Rockies, even though they shave years off my life, inflate my blood pressure, and ruin my emotional state, and so that shall do. Josh Fogg vs. Brad Penny tonight (Fogg always seems to draw the toughest assignment from the opposing team) as the Rockies try to find their oft-missing killer instinct and put the finishing smackdown on the Dodgers.

Go Rox!

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