PHILADELPHIA -- Yes, we know the Major League Baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint, but the Colorado Rockies sure spent a lot of time in spring training obsessing over their form in the starting blocks. After going 40-57 over the past four Aprils, they’ve grown tired of spending five months each year in come-from-behind mode.
All that emphasis on hard work and attention to detail in Arizona paid off when the Rockies rolled out to an 11-2 start, which makes it a little disconcerting that they have been 12-17 since. Maybe it’s just a case of too much lactic acid buildup.
“Since I’ve been here, everybody said, ‘If the Rockies get off to a good start, it’s gonna be lights-out for them. They’re going to run away with this thing,’” shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “I’ve always said that it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to finish strong just because we start fast. That’s not the way baseball works.”
Here’s the way baseball works: The Rockies were forced to change course Thursday night when Todd Helton, the team’s most consistent hitter this season, arrived at the park with a cranky back. Manager Jim Tracy filled his spot in the lineup with Jason Giambi, popular clubhouse elder, valued pinch hitter and, lately, master cobweb collector.
While Helton is enjoying a second wind in his age-37 season, Giambi entered the Rockies-Phillies finale with three hits in 26 at-bats this season, an average of .115. That doesn’t mean Giambi, still young at heart at age 40, can’t look spry when his mechanics are in sync.
“He’s one good swing away from saying to himself, ‘There it is,’” Tracy said of Giambi while briefing reporters in his office before the game.
Three good Giambi swings into Thursday’s game, the Phillies were saying, “There it goes.”
Giambi homered in his first two at-bats against substitute starter Kyle Kendrick, then deposited a third homer -- the 419th of his career -- into the right-field seats against Danys Baez. Throw in a masterful seven innings by Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin, and Colorado left Philadelphia with a 7-1 victory and a split of the teams’ two-game series.
Chalk up Giambi’s feel-good performance to patience and a little intervention by Tracy and hitting coach Carney Lansford. Before the game, they told him he needed to stand more upright in his stance to give him more latitude to turn on inside fastballs. The tip paid off, as Giambi joined Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Reggie Jackson as only the fourth 40-year-old to hit three homers in a game.
The teams played through a driving rain for two or three innings, but the umpiring crew never called a halt to the proceedings.
“We were just hoping to get the game in,” Giambi said. “Trust me, about the fifth inning, I was going, ‘God, please let’s get through the fifth.’”
Ultimately, if the Rockies plan to make the playoffs for the third time in six seasons, they’re going to need a big effort from the young franchise mainstays and 2010 MVP candidates, Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Right now, they’re works in progress. Gonzalez, who left Thursday’s game with tightness in his left groin, has a pedestrian .728 OPS in 41 games. And after laying waste to National League pitching in April, Tulowitzki is hitting 12-for-68 in May.
At the moment, Gonzalez, the 2010 NL batting champion, is struggling to embrace his heightened profile in baseball’s new-world order. A FanGraphs.com breakdown reveals that he’s seeing fewer fastballs this year (about 49 percent compared to 55 percent in 2010), as opponents are throwing him more breaking balls and changeups. He’s hitting a lot more balls on the ground, and some Rockies-watchers think he got into some bad habits trying to jack too many balls into the right-field seats in the first month.
If Gonzalez feels any extra pressure to produce because of his new seven-year, $80 million contract, he’s not about to share it publicly.
“I don’t really think about the contract,” Gonzalez said. “It hasn’t changed me at all. I still show up at the ballpark and try to work twice as hard as anybody else. I don’t think money makes you happy. What makes you happy is doing what you love to do -- what your passion is. And my passion is baseball.”
Funny, but Tulowitzki also uses "passion" to describe his approach to the game. If he has a tendency to take the fallow stretches to heart, it’s because he’s naturally inclined to push himself harder than anyone else ever could.
“I play this game with so much passion and care so much about it, I probably take it harder than the normal person,” Tulowitzki said. “And it’s not gonna change, because I care. I think it hurts me sometimes, but I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t like that.”
While Tulo and CarGo keep grinding, the Rockies have other concerns. They need to fill the lineup’s black hole at third base, where Jose Lopez, Ian Stewart, Ty Wigginton & Co. are hitting a combined .149. Where have you gone, Vinny Castilla? And Colorado desperately needs a return to form by staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished third in the Cy Young Award race last year and ranked second to Albert Pujols in the NL with a wins above replacement of 6.7. Three weeks into May, Jimenez is 0-3 with a 6.14 ERA.
“Anytime your ace isn’t pitching like you wish he was, that’s a big question mark for a team,” Tulowitzki said. “But we have full confidence that he’s going to get back to a place where he was last year.”
Confidence is a good thing for a hyped team that’s performing in fits and starts. The Rockies have faith they’ll reach their ultimate destination this season. But they’re ready for a lot of twists and turns along the way.
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