Rockies Review: Midterm exams

At the mathematical midpoint of the 2009 schedule, we've had some good times, we've had some bad times, and we've had some times ugly enough to make Carrot Top cry. The highs and lows have been well-chronicled, as this season often feels like riding the Mind Eraser at Elitch Gardens (excuse me, Six Flags) but let's run the briefs by you again. At 18-28, we were left for dead under Clint Hurdle's usual combination of well-meaning but inept stewardship, then defied all the prognosticators by abruptly resurrecting once the reins were passed to Jim Tracy. After losing three straight in Houston, it looked as if matters were going to remain status quo, but we won the next game to avoid an embarrassing four-game sweep. We thought that was going to be the chief victory, but we were wrong. That was just the start of a torrid 11-game win streak that, while it didn't take us from the proverbial worst to first, at least took us from worst to a better team than the San Diego Padres. (Yes, it really was that bad).

We waltzed into Busch and manhandled the Cardinals four games (helped by the fact that we avoided Chris Carpenter, but the way we were going, we might have beaten him too) highlighted by Ian Stewart doing a remarkable impression of the Incredible Hulk and the lineup at large wreaking havoc on a generally quite competent bullpen. Not content with that, we followed up by putting paid to the Brewers in Milwaukee, came home to get our house in order and promptly swept the Mariners, won two of three from the Rays, and swept the Pirates before setting out on the road again.

Here, the results were a bit more uneven. We swept the punchless Athletics, but that was sandwiched in between losing two of three to both the Angels and Dodgers. There's no shame in that, as both are good teams (the Dodgers, at least record-wise, the best in MLB) and we kept it close with them, but the troubling development today was that we just lost a series to the Diamondbacks.

Last year, that wouldn't have really merited comment, as they dominated us completely, but this year, they're almost 20 games south of .500 and have succeeded in establishing themselves as a non-factor in what was predicted to be a much more competitive West (or at least a two-horse race between them and the Dodgers). It's true that they've played better than their record indicates and have had abominable luck in one-run games, and several of us were afraid that this could be a trap series, as Poseidon's preview indicated. The Rockies themselves expressed anger at losing two of three to the top-dog Dodgers, saying that they were sure they could do better, so they came home fired up and... lost two of three to the cellar-dwelling Diamondbacks? Riiiiiight. We've got a theoretically cushy three-game set coming up against the pitiful Nationals, but I'm worried about this series as well. The Nats have a pernicious habit of being a thorn in our foot, as they've beaten us three of four at least twice in recent years, including last year as we thought we were getting back off the mat. But if we're going to seriously talk about ourselves as contenders, there's really no excuse for losing this series. (Hell, there's no excuse for losing a series to the Nationals regardless). Our hot surge has put us statistically back into the picture, but as any cliche-schooled baseball player can inform you in his interviews, it's a long season and you have to play them one day at a time. Jim Tracy, or at least just a change from Hurdle, has brought them back into the conversation. Now how do we extend the change from just a flash into the pan into a longer-term competence?

I'll tell you one way it won't happen: continuing to rely on the bullpen we've got right now. When you've got Alan Embree, Randy Flores, Matt Daley, Juan Rincon, and Joel Peralta handling your close and key situations, valiantly and, as a matter of thumb, futilely trying to build a bridge to the one trustworthy component -- Huston Street -- then you, Huston, have a problem. Last year we were acclimated to the hijinks of the closer (Brian Fuentes has since, of course, taken the Cardiac Arrest Arena Show to Anaheim (Los Angeles)) but had one of the best setup men in the league in Taylor Buchholz, who sported an ERA that went over 2 only because of some late-season fatigue-related scuffles. Now it's the other way around, and you start to realize why most scouts mention that we need a few middle relievers before we can be given that boost into the next echelon. Today was the prime example. U-ball had lost his no-hitter, had given up a three-run jack, and was over 100 pitches in the 7th, but who is Tracy going to put in? His choice would elicit facepalming from the Rowbots no matter who it was. When your late-innings bridge is a case of pick your poison and cover your eyes, you're going to have trouble keeping up a head of steam into the all-important stretch run.

So the question is: Is the brain trust going to gamble that we can compete this year, and make a deadline trade for a reliable middle reliever? Are they going to act to improve the team at all, or just take their favoured tack of letting the chips fall where they may? They've already showed more of a shift in this direction by firing Hurdle and drafting Matzek with their first pick (SIGN HIM SIGN HIM SIGN HIM, yeah I possibly think we should, you know, try and sign him) but they certainly have a long way to go. Of course, it's not entirely on their shoulders if the results aren't what we all expect and hope for, as the nine guys on the field have the most direct impact on the standings, but the front office certainly does need to do their part to supply talented fractions of the equation.

Of course, no matter how much they're causing us the most headaches these days, the bullpen isn't the only part that needs to carry more water. The offense is tending too much toward its old bad habits of striking out too much and going after pitches early in the count, and while today can be excused by the fact that we were facing one of the best pitchers in baseball, the offense may need to simply do more to compensate for the bullpen's hijinks. Last night, we went into the eighth up 4-3. By the time it ended, we were down 9-4. We scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth, after only then realizing that it might be advisable, but went with a whimper, not a bang, in the bottom of the ninth, uno dos adios.

The offense isn't as large as a concern, as it's shown that when it's clicking, there's more than sufficient firepower to get the job done. It just goes back to the old bugaboo: consistency. It's great if they all hit like Stan Musial for a couple weeks, but if they follow that up by a few weeks of hitting like post-steroids Jason Giambi, that's ultimately not going to make too much of a difference. It's like driving 90 mph on the freeway, then hitting the brakes and driving at 20, then hitting the accelerator again. We all know that the Rox are capable of great stretches of play, where they look like world-beaters and it's a pleasure instead of a chore to spend time with this sports team we love more than a lot of things on earth. We've had bright spots: the starting pitching has, as a rule, been good ranging to brilliant recently. We didn't just get the obligatory one All-Star, but a whopping two. (Congrats to Brad Hawpe, who's earned it, and Jason Marquis, who has made Rockies Nation love him very much in a short period of time and who better not follow it up with a characteristic second-half lull). As a matter of fact, that's some advice that the whole team could take, and as we have one more week before the official close of the first half, we have some time to speculate on what it'll look like on the far side of St. Louis. There's certainly no more time for wasting or giving away games. If we'd played better in April and May, we might be closer to the top of the hole, instead of still beavering away and kicking up a lot of dirt. If we're going to do this, we're going to have to earn it.

After all, nothing good in life comes free. Not even those fireworks last night, no matter how fantastic they were. It was great to be back at the yard, to shout encouragement and dudgeon at the boys, and chill out in the left-field bleachers, albeit with a different guy wearing #5 in front of me. But I'm pretty tired of promising stretches going chilly in a hurry. So it's time to turn back up the intensity in a relatively soft portion of the schedule, switch on the afterburners, and head down the stretch for a summer and fall of proving, to the team and to the rest of the world, that when the Colorado Rockies have success, it isn't always fluky. Considering where we were, 42-39 after 81 is pretty darn good. But it needs to be better. It's time for moves to be made, both physical and mental. It's time to DO. THIS. THANG.

Also, it's time to return Stephen Drew and Chris Young to their regularly scheduled obscurity. OY.

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