Rockies are in the mix and that’s no surprise

Struggling to see out of the NL West basement at the end of May, the Colorado Rockies head into the final days of July boasting the third-best record in the NL and leading the NL wild-card race.

Surprised?

Don’t be. At least, don’t be surprised that the Rockies are in the midst of the postseason picture.

So what else is new?


Roy Halladay


It might seem like Roy Halladay is the only trade candidate in baseball, but there are plenty more. Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi have the latest news.

When spring training opened, there was no argument that the Los Angeles Dodgers had the most talent of any team in the NL West — maybe the entire NL — and the Rockies had a roster that ranked ahead of the rest of the West in terms of potential.

The surprise was that the Rockies played so poorly early on. They stumbled to an 18-28 start — resulting in the firing of manager Clint Hurdle on May 27 — and then lost four of the first six games after Jim Tracy started filling out the lineup. They were 20-32. And after June 3, they found themselves with a worse record than any NL team except Washington.

Now look at the Rockies.

They go into Monday’s game against the New York Mets at Citi Field — the opener in a road trip that includes stops in Cincinnati and San Francisco — having won 33 of their last 45 games. They have moved into second place in the NL West, with a two-game lead on San Francisco. It’s the second time in franchise history and first time since 1995 that the Rockies have talked seriously about the postseason in July.

During the resurgence, the Rockies have won on the road (15-4, including sweeps in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Oakland). They’ve won at home (17-7). And they have started to win against the rest of the NL West — 7-3 against San Diego, Arizona and San Francisco since the All-Star Break, leaving them 20-24 within the division.

“It is a simple game as long as you allow it to be simple,” said Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook, who raised his record to 10-3 by winning his seventh decision in a row on Sunday. “What we have regained is that feeling that everybody has a little part to take care of, and at the end of the day it turns into a big part.”

The promotion of Tracy to manager cannot be ignored. He inserted Ian Stewart at third base instead of Garret Atkins, also providing stability at second base with the decision to go with Clint Barmes, who became the No. 2 man in the lineup.

Tracy provided a different voice to the players, but he did not reinvent the team. What Tracy did have going from him was having been in the clubhouse all spring and on the bench the first two months of the season, giving him a feel for what the Rockies had to offer.

“As soon as he stepped in, it was like he had been here before and was ready for the opportunity,” said first baseman Todd Helton.

But as Tracy put it, “This is a team that we felt should be doing good things all along. We aren’t surprising ourselves.”

The front office showed its confidence in what laid ahead during the offseason.

When the decision was made to trade Matt Holliday, general manager Dan O’Dowd focused on adding players who could step in and help, starting with closer Huston Street, who is tied for the NL lead with 25 saves in 26 opportunities. O’Dowd also picked up right-hander Jason Marquis because the Rockies doubted Jeff Francis would be able to pitch this season. Francis finally decided early in spring training to undergo season-ending surgery on his left shoulder, and Marquis has filled that gap, earning an All-Star nod.

He also kept the Rockies alive in their early struggles, earning seven of the team’s 20 victories in the first 52 games of the season. Since then, the rest of the rotation has started to roll, including Cook, Jorge De La Rosa (who has won his last six decisions) and Jason Hammel (who also ran off a streak of six consecutive winning decisions).

Rockies starters have 42 wins, tied with St. Louis for the NL lead — and with a 42-30 record, the rotation’s winning percentage is the best in baseball. When the Rockies were surging into the NL wild-card race with a franchise-record 21 wins in June, the rotation earned 19 wins, making it the first NL rotation to do that since the 1985 New York Mets.

And the offense has been creative. They are only eighth in the NL in batting average, but rank second in runs scored and OPS. They lead the NL in sacrifice flies and walks, ranking second in home runs, fourth in stolen bases and fifth in sacrifice bunts.

“The only manager I had ever played for in the big leagues was Mr. Hurdle,” said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, “and I only have good things to say about him. At the same time, we needed something different.”

Hot Seat

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Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi has become the target for fans upset that he is trying to deal right-handed pitcher Roy Halladay. Ricciardi only complicated matters last week by announcing during a radio interview that the decision to shop Halladay came after Halladay said he wouldn’t re-sign with the Jays after next season, and that Halladay gave him a list of teams he would approve for a trade. Halladay, however, said no list was ever given, and all he’d said about his contract situation when Ricciardi asked him the question was that he wanted to wait and see what happens with the Jays next year.

Ricciardi has tried to downplay the fact he announced on July 5 that he was looking to trade Halladay, but he has raised eyebrows from observers who wonder why he made it a public issue. The Jays are shopping a handful of players, including outfielder Armando Rios and Vernon Wells — but when asked about that, Ricciardi says it isn’t his policy to talk about possible trades. Belief in Toronto is that Ricciardi was trying to stir fan unrest against Halladay, making it easier to trade the best pitcher in the game, but that it has backfired.

Series stuff

The Dodgers travel to St. Louis for a four-game series that opens on Monday in what could be a preview of the first round of the postseason. The Dodgers (in the NL West) and Cardinals (in the NL Central) are both in first place. The Dodgers do have the best record in the NL, but the Cardinals have been a recent challenge for the Dodgers, particularly at the new Busch Stadium. The Cardinals have a 14-5 edge on the Dodgers for the last three years, winning 8 of 10 at the new Busch Stadium. The Dodgers are hoping that Chad Billingsley is ready to get back in gear after taking seven starts to earn win No. 10 in his last outing. Billingsley starts Tuesday.

Milestone watch

Goose Goslin is about to slip down the all-time lists. Ken Griffey, Jr., went into the week needing three hits for 2,736, which would move him ahead of Goslin into 49th all-time. Todd Helton had 500 doubles, needing one more to move into sole possession ahead of 47th place, ahead of Goslin and John Olerud.

Jim Thome, meanwhile, has 1,611 walks, four away from moving ahead of Eddie Yost into 10th place on the all-time list.

Keep an eye on

Atlanta outfielder prospect Jason Heyward has done nothing to diminish his standing as the game’s top prospect since he was promoted to Class-AA Mississippi. In his first 17 games, Heyward hit .417 with nine doubles, two triples, two home runs and 13 RBI. Heyward turns 20 on Aug. 9. The Braves don’t want to rush him, but Heyward may not give them much choice. The last outfielder they jumped to the big leagues during a season begun at Single-A was Andruw Jones.

FYI

With left-hander Ted Lilly going on the disabled list Saturday, all four veteran members of the Cubs rotation have been sidelined this season. Carlos Zambrano was out May 4-21 with a strained left hamstring. Rich Harden was out May 22-June 12 with a mid-back strain. Ryan Dempster, out since July 7 with a broken big toe, returns to the active roster on Tuesday. Lilly is officially sidelined with an inflammation in his right shoulder, but he also will undergo arthroscopic surgery on Monday on his left knee. Manager Lou Piniella sounds overly optimistic, saying Lilly could miss only “four or five starts.”

Overheard

“The way I look at it is he was traded for a player who had very little (leverage). It’s highly unusual for a major-league roster player to be traded for somebody like that. So somebody wanted to get him out of the organization, and they’ve accomplished what they wanted to accomplish.”

— St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan, upset that his son, Chris, was traded to Boston for shortstop Julio Lugo, who was designated for assignment by Boston and about to be released.

Quickly

Mets assistant general manager Tony Bernazard’s bizarre behavior in dealing with prospects has upset ownership, but the target of the concern is not Bernazard, who has worked hard to ingratiate himself to Jeff Wilpon, meddlesome son of owner Fred Wilpon…. Don’t be surprised if outfielder Matt Holliday takes control of contract negotiations in St. Louis and tells agent Scott Boras to forget about breaking the bank in free agency. Four months in Oakland showed Holliday just how miserable things can be. Holliday will find a comfort in St. Louis, a city more his size and a team with fans who will make him feel welcome…. When RHP Tim Wakefield comes off the disabled list, future Hall of Famer John Smoltz could be the odd-man out in Boston’s rotation.

Final Word

There is something wrong in the message.

Mark McGwire was “caught” by a reporter with an over-the-counter nutritional substance that was purchased at a national chain store, which was sitting in view of anyone who passed by his locker during the chase for Roger Maris’ home run record. As a result, he has been castigated by the media and public. McGwire was using a substance that wasn’t banned in any team sport, and was available for anyone, any age, to buy, and he basically has been driven into the life of a hermit in retirement because the substance has since been outlawed.

Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez, the man who quit on a Boston team that was paying him $20 million a year to force a trade, becomes a cult hero, and Mannymania grows when he returns from a 50-game suspension for using an illegal substance. The Dodgers even go ahead and honor him with a bobblehead night, and then the Southern California media fawns over Ramirez for a pinch-hit grand slam that came in the sixth inning of another July game, going so far as to rank it as one of the most dramatic home runs in Dodger history.

It just reinforces one of the sadder element of sports: If an athlete can help a team win the game, fans are willing to overlook despicable behavior.