Who says there’s no such thing as a big series in April? Not me.
Starting Monday, we have Giants at Rockies for three games, and it certainly feels like a big showdown to me. The Rockies have baseball’s best record at 12-3 -- but have yet to play a team with a winning record, as they’ve cleaned up against the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Pirates, Mets and Cubs. So they have a little something to prove. The Giants are 8-7, four games behind the Rockies, and certainly don’t want to leave Denver seven games out of first place. They have their three top starters lined up (Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain) to prove something to Troy Tulowitzki and Co.
The Rockies have been impressive in outscoring their opponents 85 to 59, especially going 7-1 on the road, after a dismal 31-50 mark in 2010. The Rockies have had only one winning road season in franchise history -- 41-40 in 2009 -- so getting off to a strong start there is a positive sign.
Second-year righty Esmil Rogers starts Monday against Lincecum in what may look like a mismatch, but Rogers has been solid in winning his first two starts. As a rookie in 2010 he was jerked around between Triple-A and the majors, between the bullpen and starting, so this is a good opportunity for the Rockies to see what they have. So far he’s been effective against left-handers (.200/.300/.343) but there are doubts on how his stuff will fare consistently against lefty swingers.
And with all the attention given to Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, it’s easy to forget that Ubaldo Jimenez is back after missing a couple starts with a cracked cuticle. The Giants hit just .168 in four games against Jimenez last season. He starts Tuesday against Sanchez.
Cain has allowed three runs over his first three starts, despite just 10 strikeouts over 19 innings. Going back to last September, and including his three postseason starts, Cain has allowed more than two runs just once in 10 starts (his final regular-season start of 2010). He may not impress you with the raw stuff that Lincecum and Jimenez possess, but since 2009 the only starters with a better ERA are Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Carpenter and Lincecum.
The Giants may also make a move with Cody Ross during the series. After a couple rehab starts with Fresno on Sunday and Monday, he should be activated from the DL. Will rookie first baseman Brandon Belt be sent down? After an 0-for-4 effort on Sunday, Belt is down to .200/.310/.280, with one homer and one double in 50 at-bats. But his eight walks shows the excellent discipline and understanding of the strike zone he displayed in the minors.
Considering Aubrey Huff’s shaky efforts in the outfield, the Giants may want to move Huff back to first and send Belt down until his bat gets going. I think it would be a mistake; despite his postseason heroics, Ross just isn’t that good (and it hurts saying that, as I’m a big fan). Ross can hit lefties -- .883 OPS in 2010 -- but shouldn’t be a regular against righties (.687 OPS in 2010). Andres Torres’ strained Achilles tendon that landed him on the DL may give Belt a two-week reprieve, as Ross could slide into center field (except Aaron Roward is inexplicably off to a .364/.378/.568 start in 44 at-bats).
It all adds up to some intriguing subplots to the best series of the week.
OTHER SERIES OF THE WEEK
Los Angeles Angels at Texas
The Angels are riding the red-hot arms of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren and come to Texas riding a five-game winning streak. The offense has been solid, but it’s coming from surprising sources: Maicer Izturis is hitting .383, Alberto Callaspo .346 and Howie Kendrick has five home runs. Vernon Wells has raised his average to .148, but still seeks his first home run. (How many years left on that deal?) For the Rangers, their own hot pitcher, Matt Harrison, squares off against Weaver in the series finale. Harrison’s start is especially impressive considering his outings have come against the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox. Harrison entered this season with 225 major league innings and not much of a track record -- 5.39 ERA, 261 hits, 31 home runs, only 4.9 K’s per nine innings. He’s allowed just 14 hits in 22 innings despite a below-average strikeout rate (5.7). He’s throwing more strikes and getting more ground balls, but I’m not sold on him just yet.
PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Friday: Jon Lester (1-1, 3.20 ERA) vs. Dan Haren (4-0, 1.16 ERA), Red Sox at Angels
Haren has been absolutely dominant so far, pounding the strike zone, allowing opponents a .164 average and generally looking like the best pitcher in the AL. If there’s been one complaint about Haren over the years it’s that he throws too many strikes, leading to a lot of home runs (31 in 2010, 27 in 2009), So far, he’s allowed just one in 31 innings, and pitching in Angel Stadium will help, as it’s one of the tougher home runs parks in the AL.
1. Watched Jose Contreras close out the Phillies’ 3-2 win over the Marlins for his third save. It wasn’t pretty, as he walked two batters and threw just nine of 22 pitches for strikes, finally getting Omar Infante to ground out sharply to end it. Contreras hasn’t allowed a run in five innings, but I’m still a little skeptical about the Philly bullpen. But … maybe the Phillies won’t need much beyond Contreras, Ryan Madson (five scoreless innings) and Antonio Bastardo (nine K’s in 5 2/3 innings). Philadelphia relievers threw just 421 innings last season, fewest in the NL. No team has pitched fewer than 400 since the 2005 Cardinals threw 397 2/3, but the Phillies are a good bet to do it. That Cardinals team won 100 games and all five starters -- Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Matt Morris -- made at least 31 starts.
2. Welcome back, Grady Sizemore. Nice to see Cleveland’s center fielder go 2-for-4 with a home run, double and an RBI in his first game since May 16. The Indians are 11-4 after sweeping the Orioles for their third series sweep already, and it’s worth noting that Shin-Soo Choo (.214/.286/.339) and Carlos Santana (.196/.276/.314) aren’t hitting yet, and they will.
3. I watched the major league debut of Arizona pitcher Josh Collmenter and he had one of the weirdest motions you’ll see. Midway through the windup, as he brings the ball back behind him, he does a little bit of a knee jerk of sorts, leans back a bit, and then comes straight over the top. He’s not really much of a prospect -- Baseball America didn’t rate him as one of Arizona’s top 30 prospects -- but he entered in the 11th inning against the Giants, threw strikes, worked quickly (a lesson for all rookies), retired all six batters he faced and got the win when Arizona scored in the bottom of the 12th. Congrats, Josh.
RANT OF THE WEEK
Right when I start believing in the Brewers … they go out and lose a doubleheader to Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez, two guys who can’t break 90 with their fastballs (actually, in the case of Livan, he can’t break 85). The Brewers desperately need Corey Hart to return, as the team’s lack of depth is embarrassing. Mark Kotsay? Forty-year-old Craig Counsell? Thirty-three-year-old outfielder Erick Almonte, once hailed as the next Derek Jeter, but now listed at 245 pounds and coming off a two-homer season in Triple-A? Please. This has to be one of the worst benches in the majors, especially for a supposed contender.
PHOTO OF THE DAY