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8/13/2007 10:47:00 AM

NL West: Tap the Rockies

By Jon Weisman

This is usually the time when the Colorado Rockies go back to shopping at Philosophies 'R' Us, trying to find a deal that will give them a chance of winning at high-altitude. Next year typically starts every August, if not sooner.

Not this year.

The Rockies are five games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for first place in the National League West and only two behind the San Diego Padres (whom Colorado visits for a three-game series starting Tuesday) in the wild-card race.

It's gotten to a point where every personnel decision the Rockies face is worthy of attention.

First and foremost comes Colorado's starting pitching. Already having lost Rodrigo Lopez for the season, the Rockies' latest casualty was Jason Hirsh, who went down with a fractured right fibula. Astonishingly, Hirsh pitched five innings with the injury, but Colorado needs some longer-term solutions.

On Sunday, 36-year-old journeyman Tim Harikkala started and allowed three runs and nine hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Cubs, then was designated for assignment after the game.

Jeff Francis (114 ERA+ according to Baseball-Reference.com, with 100 being league average) gives the Rockies a strong chance to move within a game of San Diego on Tuesday when he opposes Greg Maddux, but on Wednesday Colorado is tentatively scheduled to throw 23-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez, who has allowed 41 baserunners in 24 2/3 innings over five starts.

"Jimenez revealed flaws that kept him nestled in Colorado Springs for much of the season," wrote Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post concerning Jimenez's last start, in which he allowed nine runs in two-plus innings. "His fastball was flat, and he couldn't command his curveball or changeup. ... It raises the question: How much more patience can the Rockies show the 23-year-old?"

Renck said that 21-year-old lefty prospect Franklin Morales "is on the fast track." Beyond that, the options look like retreads such as veteran Elmer Dessens, now at AAA Colorado Springs.

Although the Rockies could welcome back All-Star closer Brian Fuentes this week, according to Thomas Harding of MLB.com, it will have to be the Rockies' offense that carries the team through these rough patches. To that end, Colorado has added another weapon, calling up 22-year-old third baseman Ian Stewart.

Colorado already has a starter at third in Garret Atkins, but Stewart will, if nothing else, help off the bench (replacing Jeff Baker, who was hit in the head by a Jason Marquis fastball Friday).

Stewart also is helping the Rockies ease Todd Helton (back spasms) back into the lineup at his own pace, by allowing Atkins to spot-start at first base.

"This was no September call-up," wrote Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. "A hot prospect in the Rockies' organization since his selection in the first round of the 2003 June draft, Stewart was tossed into the fire of a pennant race."

Colorado has also been improvising in center field. Clint Barmes, the deposed Rockies starting shortstop, has moved to the outfield in place of Willy Taveras, who is nursing a right quadriceps injury. Barmes doubled and scored on both Saturday and Sunday.

But with all these transactions, a little magic never hurts. Stewart went 0 for 2 in his first start Saturday before giving way to pinch-hitter Jamey Carroll.

Drew Bienhoff of Up in the Rockies picks up the story from there:

Coming into today's game against the Cubs, you could almost sense a bit of panic throughout Rockies Nation. Two straight losses to Chicago on the heels of a dominant sweep of the Brewers had taken Rox fans from a nice sky high to a very earthly low, 6.0 games back of the unfathomably hot Diamondbacks. I guess that goes to show something when it's hard not to panic after two consecutive losses, but with the way that this franchise has mailed it in late in the season over the past decade, it's difficult to blame Colorado fans for feeling a bit anxious. Plus, with the Cubs' young phenom Rich Hill on the mound going against Rox fifth starter Josh Fogg, the pitching matchup was anything but advantageous. Times were tenseā€¦

But along came the most unlikely of heroes with the bases loaded, two outs, and a tie game in the bottom of the sixth inning. That's right, Jamey Carroll, he of the 17-for-96 (.177) start to the season and the current .229 batting average, strode into the batter's box and lined a grand slam into the first row of the left field bleachers, sending the Coors faithful into an uproar.

Brandon Webb is about one game away from being worthy of round-the-start national coverage. Webb has thrown 33 consecutive scoreless innings, putting him more than halfway to Orel Hershiser's major league ecord.

"The difference last night -- and, indeed, during much of the streak, was the return of Webb's ability to control his pitches," writes Jim McLennan of AZ Snakepit. "In six starts since the All-Star break ... he has allowed only nine walks in 44.2 innings -- 1.83/nine innings. In the last six starts he made before the All-Star break, that figure was 3.23, and his ERA was 3.92. Now, he can throw the sinker for a strike, almost at will, and hitters are no longer able to lay off, knowing it'll probably drop out of the zone."

These have been heady times for division-leading Arizona, which has endured three consecutive losing seasons (including a 51-111 debacle in 2004), and Justin Upton fever has only fed the frenzy. Upton, whose Aug. 2 callup (23 days before his 20th birthday) made him the youngest player in the majors, is 10 for 34 with four walks, three doubles, three triples and a home run. That's a .368 on-base percentage and a .647 slugging percentage.

"Even as he looks a bit uncomfortable in right field, Upton looks like he belongs in the majors when he's up at the plate," wrote Nicholas Cote of Out in the Desert. "He doesn't chase bad pitches, or even good pitches that are slightly off the plate but tempt inexperienced hitters ... and he's willing to hit pitches where they're thrown. This guy is exactly what the Diamondbacks need right now."

Nevertheless, a small dose of reality struck the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals on Sunday. Six outs away from cementing a five-game lead in the division, Arizona allowed six runs and lost, 7-6. Waiver claim Byung-Hyun Kim starts the Diamondbacks' next game against his most recent team, Florida.

Milton Bradley has been a success for San Diego when he has played. Now on his third California team in three years, Bradley has an on-base percentage of .461 and slugging percentage of .627 in 89 plate appearances, but a strained right hamstring has held him to one plate appearance since Aug. 3.

"He's just sore because he worked it real hard" in a workout before Friday's game, Padres manager Bud Black told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Brian Giles has cushioned Bradley's absence, hitting, as Corey Brock of MLB.com points out, five home runs in 13 at-bats against Cincinnati after hitting two in his first 286 at-bats this season.

Like their division rivals, the Padres are also still working to solve the back end of their rotation. Brock wrote that "Clay Hensley, who pitched six walk-free innings in Triple-A on Friday, apparently will return to the Padres and start for Wil Ledezma on Thursday against the Rockies" after Ledezma lasted only 2 1/3 innings in his Friday start."

Small side note: the pitcher who made his major-league debut by throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings while relieving Ledezma, Jack Cassel, is the brother of New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, Brock noted. Jack was sent back to AAA after the game, as the Padres keep rotating arms onto the roster.

Now that Barry Bonds has gone into the great home run beyond, the problems of the San Francisco Giants return to the spotlight. Grant Bisbee of McCovey Chronicles had his own take.

"Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team," Bisbee wrote. "I'm just going to repeat that a few times for effect. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team."

I've avoided doing this so far this season on Fungoes, but for an update on the Dodgers, I'd like to invite you to check my Sunday posting at Dodger Thoughts.

One thing you don't hear much about these days in Los Angeles that you did hear in July: the notion that Bill Mueller turned the offense around after replacing Eddie Murray as hitting coach. Not with these awful numbers since July 24, provided by David Pinto of Baseball Musings.


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