Reinvented Rockies faring unusually well
DENVER – The Colorado Rockies aren’t playing like they used to, and neither is their ballpark.Gone are the days of the Blake Street Bombers, when balls flew out of downtown Denver’s ballpark with such regularity that no lead was safe, base-stealers never let up and box scores resembled Sunday softball more than major league baseball.Nowadays, the Rockies are winning the old-fashioned way – with pitching, defense and timely hitting.Oh, and with a newfangled humidor.Colorado manager Clint Hurdle knows there are still many doubters who think it’s all a mirage that will fade by summer.”There are certain people now that talk about Coors Field like nothing has changed, like it’s still a pinball machine,” Hurdle said. “We are just going to have to keep playing good baseball, here and on the road, and eventually it will change.”The Rockies have had but one winning record since 1997, so he understands the skepticism.”We have a lot of history of not playing well over an entire season,” Hurdle said. “This group is going to continue to play the way they have so far. We believe in ourselves. The clubhouse is one of solid confidence and guarded optimism.”
General manager Dan O’Dowd’s latest blueprint – building from within and solid all-around play instead of power – is proving a good fit for a ballpark where slugfests are only sporadic now.Runs have never been so scare since Coors Field opened in 1995. The average game now features a combined 8.78 runs – about half of what it was 10 years ago, when 15.02 runs were scored per game.Each of the first 10 seasons at Coors had runners crossing the plate between 12 and 15 times a game, and that average dipped to 11.08 last season.The humidor seems to have finally kicked in after four seasons. The steel-walled, greenhouse-like room is designed to keep baseballs from drying out and shrinking in Denver’s dry, thin air. It’s welcome news to fielders who remember the days when soft pop-ups used to float into the gaps for extra bases and lazy fly balls would drift over the walls for home runs.”Those high-scoring games are fun from the offensive end, but on the defensive end it’s not all that fun,” third baseman Garrett Atkins said.Reliever Mike DeJean noticed the difference when he rejoined the Rockies last summer and found it easier to throw his sharp slider. In his first stint with the team from 1997-2000, the baseball felt like a cue ball in his hands.”You really couldn’t get a grip on it,” DeJean said. “Now, you feel the texture of the ball, you feel the seams.”With baseballs breaking better, fewer and fewer are ending up as souvenirs.”I like pitching here,” Kent Mercker of the Reds said. “This park has become one of the best pitchers’ parks.”
That’s right, Coors Canaveral is now a place where pitchers no longer fear to tread, where they don’t have to worry about feigning injury to avoid the hits to their ERA and psyche.”Something is different about this park,” Toronto’s Lyle Overbay said. “It has balanced the game here. You can get well-pitched games here and it shows with Colorado’s pitching staff. The ball doesn’t travel like it used to.”Blue Jays slugger Troy Glaus said outfielders are still playing deep enough at Coors Field that balls drop in front of them.”The dink hit has replaced home runs as the most dangerous weapon here,” he said.Which is a good thing for Colorado’s young lineup.No longer are the Rockies loaded with long-ball prowess the way they were 10 years ago when Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla – the Blake Street Bombers – hit at least 30 homers each.The new Rockies, who didn’t have a 30-homer hitter last year, have more potential than power. They win games with their arms, legs and gloves more than with their bats and brawn.Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday have double-digit homers but nobody else is close, not even slugger Todd Helton, who is on pace for a career-low 12 home runs due in part to a stint on the disabled list with an intestinal infection that has sapped his strength and robbed him of his rhythm.
The seeds for the makeover were planted last summer after the Rockies stumbled to a 22-48 start that sentenced them to a summer of small crowds. It also forced them to focus on fundamentals.”We took a beating last year,” Hurdle said. “The most challenging task for our staff was to not let the confidence of these men be affected by the result. We don’t need every guy to hit a three-run homer or every pitcher to throw a no-hitter. We just need guys to do what they are capable of doing at a given time and execute.”That effort paid off when the Rockies started out 25-19 this season despite a slew of injuries and illnesses that forced Hurdle to use nearly three dozen different lineups.The Rockies’ new style is primarily a product of pitching.O’Dowd bolstered the bullpen in the offseason, adding Jose Mesa and Ray King to set up All-Star closer Brian Fuentes. And just as the lineup withstood the absence of Helton last month, the bullpen held up when DeJean went down. Rookie Ramon Ramirez kept opponents scoreless for his first 15 1-3 innings in 11 appearances.When Houston manager Phil Garner brought his team into Coors Field earlier this month, he praised the Rockies’ young lineup, stellar defense and bright bullpen. The only thing he said he was unsure of was their starting rotation of Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis, Josh Fogg, Byung-Hyun Kim and Aaron Cook.After getting swept, Garner was another Colorado convert, a believer that the Rockies have the recipe to contend in the NL West, something Hurdle hopes will be a summer-long realization across the country.”Change brings about controversy and this ballpark is changing,” Hurdle said. “Other managers are coming in here now and saying it is different. It is going to take some time, but the biggest thing is that we have to play good baseball. You earn things in this game, nothing is given to you.”
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