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Rockies Review: We outsail the Pirates, but can't catch the Fish

It's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon, if by quiet you mean winning a series at home against the woeful Bucs, but dropping one on the road to the hot Fish. It doesn't exactly have the excitement of a divisional clash, but the Marlins are on our tail for the Wild Card, and at one point today, it looked as if we might have to start THE SKY IZ FALLIN chants. Fortunately, a 7-3 win in the second game of the doubleheader enabled the Rox to escape the approaching Tropical Storm Claudette (man, living in Florida would suck, wouldn't it?) with a 1-2 start to the six-game road trip. While it might be a bumpy flight up to Washington, where they're heading to commence three against the Nationals, the proceedings will hopefully smooth out from here. It won't, however, be as easy as you'd think. While the Nats are still solidly in the cellar of the NL East, with a frankly embarrassing 43-75 record, they've been red-hot. After an eight-game winning streak, they dropped a pair to the Braves and one to the Reds, but recovered to take the next three from Cincinnati. Now that they're just getting the hang of this whole winning business, they'll be understandably eager to compensate for the three wins we picked up at their expense back in July. They've also helpfully equipped us with Joe Beimel since that time, but in all honesty, I see no reason to pay back the favour. We have an off-day tomorrow, then Ubaldo Jimenez opens the series against Craig Stammen on Tuesday at 5:05 pm MT, and I don't give a damn about being altruistic. The Nats need to be squashed like, well, Gnats. GRRAAARGH!!!

That blood-and-brimstone moment (brought to you by Carl's Jr) aside, let's take a look at the past week. Monday started us off with a bang, as we completed the series against the Cubs by taking three of four, posting back-to-back 11-5 scores in the last two games. And oh yeah, some guy named Troy hit for the cycle, although he may have benefited from the hometown scorer on the triple (then again, it's not the hometown scorer's fault that the Cubs really suck at playing defense). Racking up tacos on his own accord with his 5-for-5, 7 RBI performance, Tulo solidified his position on the cleanup spot, where he's been wreaking holy terror on almost everybody. As Jim Tracy noted, it creates matchup problems for the opposition by splitting the spectacularly solid Helton and still-slumping Hawpe. Tulo, meanwhile, is just hitting .339 for August, slugging an eye-popping .695, which takes into account his 4 round-trippers, 3 three-baggers, and 3 two-baggers. In addition, his BB/K split before the break was 39/64; it's 15/25 thus far in the second half. As a number of articles have taken the liberty of pointing out, Tulo's performance can act as a fairly general barometer of the team's. Well, he's going now, which is why we have, despite losing the series to the Marlins, maintained our 1.5 game lead in the Wild Card. (The Mets helped us out by beating the Giants today. The Giants themselves have dropped to 4-6 in their last ten games, have one more against the Mets tomorrow, then get to go feast on Cincinnati. Let's hope that that crappy team that also wears red will prove to be a help).

All this excitement, however, must have led to the lot of them having hangovers, which is really the only way to excuse Wednesday's 7-3 loss to the Pirates. It was the sort of sloppy game that the Rockies haven't played (thankfully) in quite some while, an unwelcome blast to the past when they didn't pitch well, didn't hit well, and didn't look sharp in general. This is the sort of misstep they must avoid against creampuffs, and fortunately the embarrassment led to them exacting revenge in the next two, as they buried the Pirates by a combined score of 18-1. But as it was the Pirates, and that's what you're supposed to do to them, I'd rather take a closer look at the Marlins series. They were a hot team coming in, we had to contend with the long flight to Florida and suspect Miami weather, and the fact that the first game featured the patently unfair matchup of Jason Hammel against Marlins ace Josh Johnson. (True story: A few nights ago, I had a dream about Jason Hammel. He was talking to my sister and I, and he'd made a list of "Top Ten Things About Jason Hammel." Entries six and ten on the list, both underlined several times, were, "I must pitch better!") So were we being set up to fail, was it an excusable slip, or was it a troubling misstep against a contending team?

There's certainly no shame in being dominated by Josh Johnson, as we were (he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before Garrett Atkins broke it up, and the shutout, with a solo homer) and in fact we staged a furious rally in the ninth, clawing to within a run on Chris Iannetta's three-run bomb, but fell flat, 6-5. The attempt to dig out was heartening, but the trouble here was with the pitching. Jason Hammel might know he has to do better, but he didn't show it, allowing 6 hits and 3 runs, all earned, to go with four walks and three strikeouts in his four innings, labouring through 95 pitches to get 12 outs. Adam Eaton, called up to replace Jhoulys Chacin, didn't fare particularly better, as he allowed 3 hits and 2 runs in his three innings. Joe Beimel allowed a run in his inning of work, and ultimately, this proved to be the one run too many.

Chacin himself was demoted after walking six in his inaugural start against the Pirates, which may have dampened some of the calls to have him replace Hammel in the rotation. Eaton isn't going to offer anything quantifiably different, so it looks like we're going to have to pin our hopes on Hammel suddenly figuring something the hell out. In six post-break starts, he's 2-3 with a 5.65 ERA, allowing 45 (!) hits and 18 runs in 28 innings, along with two homers, 5 hit-by-pitches, 8 walks, and 23 strikeouts. While the walk figure is better than some of his others (it works out to about three walks per nine innings) it doesn't matter too much if he's just going to let them hit their way on. Hammel's a fifth starter, of course, and a fifth starter doesn't need to be world-beating, but it would be better if he wasn't a risk for a massive blowup every time you ran him out there. Thus far, he's managed to weeble and wobble his way out of serious trouble, but I have to say, he's still not engendering a lot of confidence. With Josh Fogg chipping in 3.2 innings of scoreless relief in the first game of the doubleheader today, I wonder if we'll start hearing calls for the Dragonslayer to be stretched out and stuck back in there. Us older Rowbots may remember the general bellyaching that accompanied Fogg's starts in 2006 and most of 2007, but he is, at least, a fairly predictable commodity.

However, Hammel wasn't the only starter to struggle, and the slightly more disturbing development from the first game of the doubleheader (and the reason Fogg needed to come in at all) was that Aaron Cook did likewise. Making his first start back from a jammed big toe, Cook wasted no time in proving that maybe he wasn't quite ready. The Marlins pinballed him for 8 hits and 7 runs, three walks and two homers, in just 2.1 innings. Then again, they did that to Matt Daley and Joe Beimel as well. As soon as the Rockies' official site featured an article on Daley's successes, he promptly had a one-inning, four-hit, two-run bellyflop, helping push the Marlins' lead to 9-3. Beimel himself had a second consecutive choppy outing, as he allowed three hits and a run himself in his inning of work. I'd say that the Marlins series definitely exposed some soft undersides, that or everyone just chose it for a communal off-day. The offense isn't exempt from blame, as getting only one run off Chris Volstad (their version of Jason Hammel) won't earn you any gold stars on the merit chart. I have to say, being reminded of how the guys used to play wasn't particularly enjoyable. After losing the first game by a closer-than-expected score, I was actually expecting them to go out and bounce back, not endure the 10-3 pasting that followed. At least they salvaged the third game. But having Cook struggle like that is never a good thing. Troy Renck believes that if he goes down, and/or isn't exactly Cook, our playoff chances take a fairly significant hit. At least the other important cog, Jason Marquis, who had his first truly bad outing against his former club in Saturday's 6-5 loss against the Cubs, returned to form with 7 innings of 1-run ball against the Pirates. (Yeah, yeah, I know, it's the Pirates. But still).

Fortunately, there were some bright spots to take away as we forsake Florida for the feds. First, aside from Tulo, is there a hotter hitter in the lineup than Carlos Gonzalez? He's hitting .390 in August alone (.413 OBP, .732 SLG -- no, those are not typos) with 3 homers and 9 RBIs, an effort which has jacked his post-break performance to 4/10/.381/.414/.714. Nor is he a Coors Field creation, as his home and road stat lines look quite similar: .280/.316/.560 on Blake Street, .278/.357/.431 elsewhere. (Speaking of which, I can't be the only one taking a deep and vindictive thrill in the fact that our old friend Matt Holliday, freed from the Oakland boneyard, has returned to All-Star form and is tearing up everything in sight in St. Louis. Nah, we can't ever know how good a guy is in Coors, right? Asshats).

CarGo and Dexter Fowler, fortunately recovered from a knee injury incurred while running down a long sac fly in the last Cubs game, have proven to be the promised whirlwind on top of the lineup, as their 7-for-10 combined performance fuelled the 10-1 rout of the Pirates on Thursday. This has relegated Seth Smith to a premier pinch-hitter, which is not at all a bad problem to have. CarGo contributed homers in both halves of the doubleheader, and continues to offer his usual great defense (Smith had a few problems in his start in the first game). Combined with Huston Street's return to form after his shaky outing against the Cubs, things are starting to look even more reassuring on that front. Nobody remembers Greg Smith, and nobody really needs to. In addition, Brad Hawpe broke his umpty-zillion at-bat homerless streak with a two-run homer today, finally reaching 16 big flies for the season. (Remember when he was leading the team? Now he's muddling well behind Tulo, who leads with 23).

The other topic that needs addressing, which I meant to get to in last week's Review but didn't, is the catching. Three-run bomb on Friday aside, Chris Iannetta's still having trouble putting a comfortable separation in between himself and the Mendoza line. Iannetta's always been one of those guys who gets an extraordinarily long leash from Rowbots, and it'll continue, as we're already well aware of what Yorvit Torrealba offers on a full-time basis and aren't particularly eager to go back to it. Iannetta's defense and game-calling are both solid, and a slugging catcher is a commodity that only a few teams can boast, but still, it'd be nice if he'd stop striking out and hitting lazy fly balls. Iannetta's strength has always been his discerning eye, but his post-break OBP is a Willy Taveras-esque .300. (Yes, ouch). He's walked only 7 times in 68 ABs, against 17 Ks, has a pair of doubles and 4 HR, but is still not exactly the "Dreamy" we require. Note to Chris: Get on it.

All in all, I don't think the Marlins series was any sort of fatal misstep, especially since the Mets helped us out with the Giants, but it does show that there are a few weaknesses against contending teams that will need to be addressed before we hit that crucial ten-game stretch against the Dodgers and Giants to close out August. Our bullpen, for example, didn't look quite as inviolate as before, and there's still those continuing struggles of Hammel, and the clunker of an outing against the Pirates, and the clunker turned in by Cook in the first game today. Ideally, we'll get well against the Nats and make a 3-3 or 4-2 road trip. But, of course, there shouldn't be any overlooking them. We need to get back in the driver's seat.

Go Rockies!