As I mentioned in yesterday's game thread, the season closed with the Rockies having gained nine wins in the standings from the previous season but still well out of the playoff picture. Next season that last part has to change, but the bar will be higher in both the NL West and Wild Card picture. In the West, ninety-five wins should be the target number to shoot for, as the Dodgers will probably take another step forward. For the Wild Card, This season it would have taken 87 wins, and I'm thinking 90 is in line with where I would expect next season's winner to be.
There were some key games in the second half this season where coming up with a win could have made a significant turn in our fortunes. I'm going to rank them subjectively by which I feel was most important in turning our season from one of promise to one of despair. I'll provide brief recaps of the what and why it affected us, and then analyze the current state of the team to see if we've corrected the shortcoming that were exposed.
1. Perhaps the biggest was this August 10 game against the Dodgers. This loss exposed the Rockies once and for all as pretenders this season, as a win on the road against an important divisional foe -and a split in the series- would have set the tone for future encounters with the Dodgers and given us confidence facing other key opponents like the Mets.
What went wrong: The first problem was an inability of anyone in the batting order to clear the basepaths. A look at the box score reveals that the offense didn't do too badly, with all the starters except for JJ and Jamey Carroll getting at least one hit, and on base by hit or walk at least twice.
After this game, Jorge Piedra was given his walking papers, but it would take nearly a month before the two players who I think would have been most likely to change our fortunes from an offensive standpoint in this game, Kaz Matsui and Jeff Baker, would be called up to the big club. Carroll's a gamer, but he hadn't hit on the road and particularly at Dodger Stadium all season, and leaving him in the leadoff spot seems unwise even at the time. Though the average wasn't as great, I would have preferred Sullivan, given who the roster had at the time.
Second, note the collapse of the bullpen, namely the veteran presence and diabolical duo of Jose Mesa and Ray King. Why wasn't Manuel Corpas left in?
Gee Clint, you think? I'm sorry, by now we all know this would not be the last example of Clint's draw-reens of innings involving King and Mesa to turn out like a child's depiction of horrific nightmares.
Problems Solved? Like I mentioned above, the presence of Matsui and Baker have greatly solidified the depth of this team, turning the bench from a strength to a weakness very quickly. Matsui's status for next season is up in the air, though, so there's no guarantee we'll continue to reap any benefit from having options in the infield. As far as the 'pen, given recent sentiments expressed by our manager in blind faith of old pitchers, with an example in practice coming just Saturday day/night, I have no confidence we'll see better personnel decisions made next year.
2. While that Dodgers game was a "must win" that the team failed in, it only became that way due to a slide that happened much earlier, the eight game losing streak with the All-Star game in between. July 8, 2006, was the second of those eight losses and in my opinion the worst. Soon to be Cy Young winner Brandon Webb faced us for the second out of four times this season, and dominated us as he did in three of those four. Still, thanks to a brilliant perfomrance by JJ, the game wasn't decided until the bullpens came on in the ninth.
What went wrong: In an eight to seven loss which was tied one to one going into the ninth, you'd think I'd lay most of the blame on the pen, and particularly Brian Fuentes who gave up six runs, but in this case I think responsibility needs to be spread around. Let's start with the lineup, which included such luminaries as Omar Quintanilla batting second and Choo Freeman. This would probably not be the way I played it, but our other options at the time were Sullivan and Barmes, so how much better could we have expected? It's hard to say. I look at the first inning when yeah, Carroll, Q and Helton were schooled, but they got Webb to throw nineteen pitches and I wonder what if the rest of the game we followed that example? Instead, here are Webb's pitch counts by inning:
And that seventh was his last, obviously, but couldn't we have gotten to their pen sooner? The way the fourth and fifth innings ended doesn't sit well with me, and we'd see this pattern repeated the last time Webb pitched against us in September. The fourth started with a double by Carroll, he was sacrificed over to third by Quintanilla, and then he was gunned down at the plate trying to score on a fly from Helton to shallow center. The fifth ended when fleet footed Yorvit Torrealba was caught attempting to steal. We were overly aggressive on the base paths, and too focused on "little ball" tactics. At some point against the division's top pitchers, Hurdle and the team have to be confident enough to control the flow of the game and not try to nibble their way to victory. As for Fuentes, this bad stretch seemed to be more about him having bad luck at a bad time for the team. He wound up giving up six, but the initial sequence to load the bases before things spiralled out of control with the grand slam of two infield hits and a weak fly to center could have just as easily gone in our favor.
Problems Solved? No. September's game against Webb, as well as the last encounters with Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chris Young ought to make it clear that we still don't have any kind of swagger against the division's elite pitchers, particularly the sinker-ballers that we seem to covet. At least we seem to have Matt Cain finally figured out.
3. July 16, just over a week later at Cincinnati, the Rockies took a three to one lead into the eighth inning before watching the bullpen implode yet again. Tom Martin and Jose Mesa came in to give up five runs to the Reds in just one inning's work. This would be Jose's sixth blown save and third loss on the season as the Rockies lost their seventh in a row as their second half slide into irrelevance deepened.
Problem Solved? Jose Mesa has run hot and cold for us this season. Unfortunately it's much easier to remember those cold stretches than the hot ones unless you're named Clint Hurdle. Mesa's ERA by month:
My trouble with Mesa is that at his age, the cold stretches are more likely to be prolonged next year, and that our manager won't be able to recognize them or think they can be solved by letting Jose play through them. This one's tough. Martin's a little easier. Let him go. I think I said something different about it the other day, but that was because I was on drugs. Martin's not very good, we probably can find a better left handed option out of the pen than either him or King in the offseason.
Wait, never mind, I forgot. There really are no better LHP relief options outside of Trever Miller. Maybe Arthur Rhodes. Anyway, let's offer Miller something really tasty to come over to our side and if he bites, cut bait on Martin. That's my opinion, anyway.
4. Pick one of the New York Mets games besides the last one.
What went wrong? We got scared, we had given up already, we were too inexperienced, who knows? We just really rolled over and let them have their way with us, and the sad thing is at that point the Mets were no longer the team they were in the first half of the season. For proof, check out their 21-17 record when not playing the Rockies since August 15, and note that it took a four game win streak closing out the season for them to get there. What's worse is that after the first three game set at Shea the Rockies continued to play submissive for the Brewers for three more to absolutely make sure everybody in the sports world knew for certain that the Colorado Rockies as competitors thing was just a fraud.
Problem Solved? We really can't know this until late next season, but as of now, I'd say no. Look how we similarly lollygagged for the Dodgers when they came to town in the last week. More of the team next year has to step up to keep the passion alive into September, no matter what the standings say. That said, I do like the spark Jeff Baker provided, and I like how the heart of our order, Holliday, Atkins, Helton and Hawpe responded this last month.
Eh... I'm tired of recounting this misery. For number five, somebody else can have a go if they want.