About this time last week, nobody was in particularly good spirits, as the Giants' come-from-behind win, featuring an Edgar Renteria grand slam (sorry for the memories, go ahead and repress them again) had secured a three-game sweep for them and a tie in the wild card. While not exactly panic, let's just say that the sentiment around here wasn't one of sunshine and roses.
Well, as we've learned all year, a week can make all kinds of difference, and that anything can happen in the wild, wild West (and the wild, wild card). Not that this week seemed to be making one. We were locked in tango with the Giants; after a lone misstep on their part allowed us to claim a one-game lead, that was how matters remained. We won, they won. We lost, they lost. We all stopped thinking that it was going to be easy when that comfy-looking four -game lead vanished quicker than you can say, "Seth Smith is a sexy beast," and unless something drastically unforeseen takes place in the last few weeks of the regular season, the race is going to come down to the wire. Anybody up for another play-in game.....?
Gentlemen, start your defibrillators.
Join me after the jump as we take a look at the factors fueling a 5-1 (thus far) homestand, and our return to a two-game lead in the Wild Card (thanks to our 13-5 beatdown of the Snakes today, and Prince Fielder hitting a walk-off homer to beat the Giants in 12).
First and foremost, the Rockies are benefiting from a massive Midas touch when it comes to plugging in bit parts and role players. Jose Contreras, possessing a 5-13/5.42 mark with the White Sox, came in and threw 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Dbacks in the second game of the series. Jason Giambi has two late-inning, tie-breaking hits already, providing the winning margin in both those games. Franklin Morales, taking the closer's job from the injured Huston Street, continues to look like a beast, and the horrible horde of Rincon-Flores-Peralta-Herges has been, thankfully, relegated to the part of the bullpen that's brought in to do mop-up duty, instead of the one pitching the important innings. Rafael Betancourt has been a solid enough setup man to make us all (almost) forget about the Lemur, and once Street comes back (hopefully soon, and hopefully strong) we still have Frankie to use as his left-handed counterpart. Frankie has been blossoming in the pen (you have less chances to balk and consequently come to pieces when you're only pitching one inning) and his velocity, hovering in the low nineties only a year or so ago, has now gotten ramped up as high as 98. He profiles quite well as an interim closer, and he'd be the closer on a number of other teams. This is the kind of depth that playoff-caliber teams need to have. Check.
The other thing that playoff-caliber teams need to have is a bona fide ace. Well, if there was any doubt, Ubaldo Jimenez has seemingly arrived to claim the crown. Now, I'll knock on wood, as U-ball still isn't immune to the occasional hiccup, but it's starting to look like he can produce eight-inning, two-run, seven-K efforts in his sleep. He's gone six innings or more in 24 straight outings, and like Mariano Rivera with his cutter, you know what's coming with him and you still can't hit it. According to the Denver Post, Inside Edge tracked 2,825 of the 3,041 pitches U-ball has thrown this season. 1,893 of those 2,825 were fastballs. The percentage of well-hit balls? 17%. This isn't even counting his slider (.125 BAA) and changeup (.206 BAA).
He ranks fifth in innings pitched, sixth in wins, seventh in strikeouts. What's more, he doesn't have to do it alone. Of the six pitchers leading the NL in wins, three are Cardinals (Wainwright, Carpenter, Pineiro) and three are Rockies (Marquis, JDLR, and Jimenez). JDLR weebled and wobbled all over the damn place today, walking six, but managed to limit the damage to one run in five innings. As is oft repeated, winners find a way to win even without their best stuff, and JDLR did that today, recording a 20th straight decision. He's 14-3 since starting 0-6. Admittedly, Oy George is as much a threat to show up as Yay George, but at least when he does, he's no longer quite as prone (knock on wood) to nuclear innings.
Of course, a pitcher(s), no matter how good, can't do it alone. That's why it's time to give some love to our madmen atop the lineup, Carlos "Gangsta" Gonzalez and Seth "Holy Sh!t!" Smith. (This isn't to forget my favorite quote from an opposing manager in some time. Jerry Manuel on Tulo):
"Their shortstop. He's a player. He's gangster," Manuel said. "He's not just on the gangster bus. He's driving it wherever he wants to go."
Be that as it most certainly may be, I think that CarGo should be renamed BusGo, and Seth Smith, for the moment, has hijacked the driver's seat of the gangster bus. He has caused the type of torment to the Dbacks that, I imagine, has led to them wishing to various entities that he would just go the heck away. Fortunately for us, he hasn't. He's hitting .542 in his past six games, racked up five RBIs today with a two-run shot and a three-run shot, and overall has five doubles, four homers, 10 RBIs and 10 runs scored to add to his resume for NL Player of the Week. If Smith isn't getting hisself a Swiss watch in a few days, somebody done the boy wrong. Combined with Dexter Fowler's imminent return and the continuation of Brad Hawpe's prolonged second-half slide, Smith may have played himself into a starting role for the time being. Anybody else like the taste of a Smith/Fowler/CarGo outfield? Mmmm-hmmm.
There are glimmers that Stewart may be starting to wake up too (2 for 2, 2 RBI, 3 runs scored, 3 walks today. I credit the procreation effect; much congrats to Ian and Susan Stewart on the birth of their daughter Ellsi) and Yorvit Torrealba, of all people, is providing a jolt from the catcher's spot. He's still completely useless when it comes to throwing out baserunners, but he did collect a pair of doubles today and is hitting (hold onto your chairs) a tidy .285 on the season. I know, that's not something you ever saw Yorvit doing, but since Iannetta is also slumping recently, Torrealba has officially supplanted him as the starting catcher. I can't fault the move for the time being. It's nice to have a catcher hitting something besides lazy fly balls and weak grounders (and yes, until recently, that was Yorvit's specialty. Weird season indeed).
It'll be another roller coaster of a week ahead. The Giants return home to take on the not-so-fearsome Padres, and we'll also be at home playing the Reds for four. While the Reds have been pitifully inept for most of the season, they're showing signs of a pulse, winning seven straight and 8 of 12. It'll be our job to return them to the obscurity to which they're normally accustomed, and we've got the right man on the mound for the (strangely) afternoon-game opener tomorrow: Ubaldo Jimenez. And if we've learned anything thus far, it's that it'll be cause for yet another week of various hair-raising adventures.
Hopefully we're not the one with the levitating follicles.