Rockies make statement, sweep Giants
It was getting late awful early for the Colorado Rockies.
A team that seemed primed to run away and hide in the NL West in the opening month of the season was facing a key two-game confrontation with the defending world champion San Francisco Giants, who in the past two weeks had gone from trailing the Rockies by 4-1/2 games to leading them by 1-1/2 when they arrived at Coors Field on Monday afternoon.
In a span of less than 24 hours, the Rockies not only enjoyed victory rallies in back-to-back games — which left the Giants’ 1-2 rotation punch of Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez reeling — but also forced San Francisco to revisit the possibility of returning rookie Brandon Belt from Triple-A Fresno, in hopes of resuscitating an offense that has become the National League’s worst.
The Rockies, meanwhile, were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s still a long way to October — 122 games remain on the Rockies’ schedule — but they have regained their spot atop the West, albeit just a half-game ahead of the Giants. More importantly, they rediscovered a swagger that had been missing during a two-week span in which they lost 10 of 13 to fall below .500 at Coors Field.
Things had gotten so out of whack that Manager Jim Tracy even closed the doors of the clubhouse for 25 minutes prior to Monday’s series opener against a Giants team that had beaten the Rockies five times in six games this season. There was no screaming or whining, but a simple reminder that “we had to remember what made us a really good team,’’ center fielder Carlos Gonzalez said. “When we concentrate on team, the personal numbers are going to show.’’
And the past two days, what Tracy preached, the Rockies practiced.
First, there was a 7-4 victory Monday night in which Lincecum was a sixth-inning knockout, having equaled career highs in runs allowed (seven), walks issued (six) and home runs given up (two), including the decisive three-run blast by Gonzalez on the 118th and final pitch Lincecum threw.
“To put a comeback on one of the best pitchers in the game obviously is more than just a win,’’ acknowledged Troy Tulowitzki, who had gotten the Monday rebound started with a two-run single in the fifth. “It was a big answer for us.’’
Then there was Tuesday afternoon’s 5-3 victory in which Sanchez, who threw 61 strikes out of 88 pitches, saw a Rockies team — that was limited to a Tulowitzki home run in the first seven innings — put together a four-run eighth that Gonzalez again capped, this time with a two-run single. Even though Ubaldo Jimenez got a no-decision, he did pitch seven strong innings.
“It is nice to answer back, throw a few punches and prove to them that we’re going to be in this for the long haul,’’ Tulowitzki said.
Message received. So much so that the Giants know they need to do something about an offense that has become the least productive in the league. The team has had 34 of its 41 games decided by three or fewer runs and has scored more than four runs only once in its past 17 games (despite winning 10 of them).
“It is frustrating,’’ Manager Bruce Bochy said. “We are a better-hitting club than this. You can't live on the edge every game. We've got to take a little pressure off our pitchers."
The Giants seemed to get an initial lift four weeks ago when Cody Ross came off the disabled list, and Bochy made some adjustments. He dispatched the struggling Belt to Triple-A, which allowed the defense to stabilize by getting Aubrey Huff out of right field and moved to first in place of Belt, and he inserted Ross, the 2010 NLCS MVP, back in the outfield.
The Giants lost the first four games with Ross back on the roster, but then went on a 12-6 spurt that allowed them to arrive in Colorado sitting atop the division.
“Huff did a nice job in the outfield,’’ Bochy said. “He couldn’t have had tougher players. He got a lot of attention. He has a lot of pride and he plays hard. He’s settled down (at first base). . . . And having Cody out there has had a calming effect on our defense.’’
Now, however, the Giants have slipped back into second place, and another roster adjustment seems likely. And it’s feasible that Belt, hitting .387 his first 24 games at Fresno, could return. That would prompt Huff to move again, this time to third base, providing him with a new challenge defensively.
But Pablo Sandoval is recovering from surgery to remove a broken bone in his right hand, Miguel Tejada has played himself back to shortstop after a defensive malfunction at third base, and Mark DeRosa is hitless in 18 at-bats — hitting the ball out of the infield only twice — since he came off the disabled list a week ago.
“We expect more out of ourselves," Ross said. "We talk about it as a group, and we understand that we have to get better. And we better do it fast."
There is still plenty of season remaining. And the Giants know it wasn’t until mid-July a year ago that they started to click. After the past two games, however, they also have been reminded that the Rockies can be expected to be a legitimate factor in the divisional race this time around.