Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Purple rising in Denver: Why the Rockies are relevant

A jubilant Ryan Spilborghs heads home after hammering home a walk off Grand Slam August 24th.

There is a purple force rising in the National League. If you live anywhere other than the Mountain time zone, you may be unaware of it, but the Colorado Rockies are winning ballgames. Yup, those standings that they print in the newspaper each day are not lying to you. As of the end of play yesterday, the Rox were leading the NL Wild Card race by 4 games. Chances are great that you are unaware of this team, as the national sports media (I’m looking at you, Bristol) would rather talk about what Derek Jeter had for breakfast or the tint of A-Rod’s skin than discuss the humble little team playing out at Coors Field.

There are plenty of reasons to dismiss the Colorado Rockies. They play in a goofy time zone which they are the only other team other than the Diamondbacks, and even then they only share it during the half the year when baseball isn’t being played. (Arizona doesn’t believe in saving daylight, you see.) When a team is on an island like the Rockies in Denver, it’s easy to overlook them.

The Rox also play their home games in a stadium that for years has been disparaged for being a ridiculous affront to baseball, an offensive beast which chewed up and spit out pitchers like old bags of moldy tangerines. It got so bad in the late nineties that people were referring to baseball played at altitude as “Arena Baseball” with scores routinely creeping into the teens. People acted like Coors Field wasn’t real baseball, and the Rockies couldn’t be taken seriously. I contend that it had little to do with the altitude and more to do with the atrocious pitching and solid hitting of the Rockies at the time, but whatever the reason, Colorado baseball was reduced to being considered a gimmick at best. The fact that they never sniffed the playoffs didn’t help this attitude, and the Rockies were banished to the joke bin of the major leagues.

A funny thing has happened in the past few years, the Rockies have started to get pitching. It may shock you to learn this, but right now Colorado has the 11th best ERA in all the land and two pitchers in the top 20 of the NL in ERA (Ubaldo Jimenez at 3.36 and Jason Marquis at 3.47). All of these statistical achievements have occurred despite the handicap of playing half their games at Coors Canaveral. The Rockies pitching is legit, and is the reason they are winning right now. Well, that plus their defense, as they are 8th overall in fielding percentage, and their infield defense is amazing with the spectacular Troy Tulowitzki at short, Ian Stewart manning third, the old but spry Todd Helton at first, and Clint Barmes at second. Don’t believe me that they are winning with solid defense and good pitching? Okay, they have the Wild Card lead and are only three back of the Dodgers despite the fact that they are currently 20th overall in hitting in the majors. Defense wins championships, right? Okay, let’s not go nuts. The Rockies are good, but they aren’t taking down the Yankees, Cardinals, or Phillies unless they get stupid lucky, I’m not completely delusional.

The reasons the Rocks are quickly dismissed are simple, they play in the middle of nowhere, their entire history has pretty much been written in the last fifteen minutes, and there aren’t many Rockies fans beyond the immediate Denver metro area. Not only that, but on June 3rd of this season the Rockies were 20-32 and 15.5 games back of the Dodgers. If they are somehow able to come all the way back and overtake the Dodgers to win the division, they would set a new record for the biggest deficit overcome to win a division in baseball history. They started the season like a flaming bag of crap and fell completely off the radar, playing so badly they managed to get Clint Hurdle fired less than two years after he led them to the National League Pennant. They deserved to be forgotten at the time, but new manager Jim Tracy has them playing with a quality where it is about time that they start to register nationally again. Certainly they aren’t the best team in the Bigs, but they are at least worth mentioning as a solid playoff contender. Whenever the topic of good baseball teams is raised, the usual suspects are all discussed…Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Cardinals, etc. These teams are mentioned and with good reason, they are good. What drives me nuts is that the Rockies are rarely if ever broached, although that may be beginning to change.

That may be changing, because of games like last night’s 14 inning classic. While most sports fans on the East coast were snug in their beds, the Rockies and Giants staged one of the best games of the major league season. If it had featured either the Yankees or the Red Sox the national media would have been having kittens. It was insanity, it was fantastic, and because it the featured teams were the Rockies and Giants, it will most likely just be a footnote of this week in baseball. When it truth, it may have been the best game in the Bigs this season. (To be fair to ESPN, they did have the game on their front of ESPN.com for several hours this morning, so they didn’t ignore it.)

The Giants are trying to track down the Rockies so this four game set that was just completed last night was very important for them. They won the first game of the series to cut the Wild Card lead to just one game, but they then proceeded to drop Saturday and Sunday’s games. Monday night’s game was very important to their playoff chances, as they would either be either two games back if they won, or would drop a full four games back with a loss.

The game started out well for the Giants, as they manufactured a run in the top of the first off of Jason Marquis. Little did anyone realize that run would be their last of their offense for a very long time. Barry Zito had a solid six innings of work allowing only three hits. The only run he gave up came in the fifth inning, scoring without the benefit of a single hit in the inning by the Rockies. Zito was pinch hit for in the seventh, but we had quite a pitchers duel going. Neither team could get much offense going, and it was 1-1 as we headed to the bottom on the ninth.

This game should have ended many times before the 14th. Colorado was able to get a runner to third in the ninth with two outs, again had a runner at third with only one out in the tenth and eleventh, the Giants were able to load the bases in the thirteenth, but each time the pitchers were able to wriggle off the hook.

Finally, in the 14th inning, with Adam Eaton pitching his second inning of relief, the Giants were able to break though and they broke through in a big way. With one out in the inning Edgar Renteria tripled to deep right on a play that Ryan Spilborghs played poorly thinking he could cut it to a single, the Rockies intentionally walked Travis Ishikawa to set up the double play, but then Eugenio Velez crushed a triple into left field and the Giants went up 3-1. To make matters worse for Colorado, Juan Uribe sacrificed to drive home Velez, and the Giants looked to have the game wrapped up with a 4-1 lead.

I was bummed because I’m a Rockies fan, and I had stayed up late watching this thrilling extra inning game. Now my team was going to lose and I was going to have literally lost sleep over it. I decided to stay up to watch the bottom of the 14th, fully expecting a one, two, three inning and a Rockies loss, but I figured since I had already invested so much time, I’d hang around just in case, a very good decision on my part.

Brandon Medders had already pitched two solid innings for the Giants, and as he took the mound in the bottom of the14th for his third, I was only halfway interested in the proceedings. I was sure the Rockies were not going to be able to score three runs with their final three outs, not when they had only mustered a single run with their first 39 outs. I was consoling myself with the fact that at least Colorado got the split with San Francisco in the series and maintained their two game lead. I was fully unprepared for how this thing ended up finishing.

Dexter Fowler fouled a ball off his leg before drawing a walk, so he was hobbling as he went to first base, and could barely run. Normally you would pinch run for him, but the bench was nearly empty at this point, so Dexter would have to hobble around the basepaths. Hobbling is not a great feature in your lead runner, but at least he was on base. Barmes popped out to second, and then the Giants decided to pull Medders and put in Justin Miller. Justin Miller did not do well…Chris Iannetta singled to center and there were now runners at first and second. Tulo drew a walk to load the bases, and then Adam Eaton the relief pitcher was up to bat. With the bases loaded and your team down by three runs you’d probably prefer that the batter for your team would have had at least one at bat sometime during the season, but this was Eaton’s first trip to the plate this year. Not a good sign normally, but thankfully Justin Miller was pitching. Eaton walked on five pitches with the bases loaded, and the Rockies were gifted a run to cut the deficit to 4-2. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy was none too pleased with Miller’s free pass to the reliever and the corresponding free run given to the Rockies, so he decided to bring in Merkin Valdez to try and stop the bleeding.

Up came Ryan Spilborghs, he already had blown a chance in the tenth inning when he was at bat with a runner at third and earlier in the inning he had badly played a ball in deep right field leading to a triple, so he was motivated to take advantage of his chance at redemption. Spilborghs redeemed himself and then some. He crushed a Valdez fastball into the Colorado night, and ended the game with a dramatic walk-off Salami. I could barely believe my eyes, and just sat there in my chair with the rest of my family sleeping, my fist raised victoriously in the air as I fought off every impulse to jubilantly shout for joy. I didn’t want to wake up my whole family, but I was so happy.

It was the most exciting baseball game I had watched involving my team since they went on their improbable World Series run in 2007. These are the kind of moments that can make a season, this type of game can derail a hopeful season when it goes against you, but when you rally like the Rockies did in the bottom of the 14th, it can take your team to a special place, these types of moments can raise the potential of your season. The moment rocked (no pun intended), and I hope that there are even more like it as the summer winds down. The world may not realize it, but the Rockies are for real. They may not have another crazy run to the NL title in them, in fact they still might not even make the playoffs. All I’m asking is that you just realize that this plucky little band of overachievers exists out here in the Rocky Mountains, they are playing some pretty good baseball, and they might be worth just a moment of your time and consideration. Go Rockies!