Before last season the Rockies signed veteran free-agent starters Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to deals worth a total of $172 million. Since then Hampton and Neagle combined were 37-42 through Sunday, and their contracts have become albatrosses for a team trying to rebuild. But for the bargain price of $206,000, just over the major league minimum, Colorado may finally have found an ace. After beating the Mets last Friday, rookie righthander Jason Jennings was 15-5 with a 4.17 ERA. Jennings already had the second-highest win total in Rockies history and was the first National League rookie to win 15 games since Tom Browning won 20 for Cincinnati in 1985. "He's the real deal," says one NL advance scout.
Surprisingly, Jennings has pitched well at Coors Field, where he was 9-1 with a 4.83 ERA. (No previous Colorado starter had ever won more than eight games at home in a season.) Using a hard sinker and a good changeup, Jennings doesn't walk many (just 22 in 72? innings at Coors) and keeps the ball in the park (10 homers allowed at home). "That's his recipe for winning: throwing strikes, keeping the ball down and getting a lot of ground-ball outs," says manager Clint Hurdle.
Jennings also has what may be the most important ingredient for success at Coors: courage. Unlike many starters, young or old, he hasn't been fazed by working in one of the inner circles of pitching hell. "He's not afraid to challenge hitters, and he has great mound presence for a young kid," says the scout. "He's been a breath of fresh air for Colorado."
Royals' Byrd Struggles
Empty Nest Syndrome
These are the dog days of summer, when out-of-contention teams slog through the schedule and even some of the most devoted fans are forced to abandon their heroes. Royals righthander Paul Byrd, 31, found that out last week when the Byrd's Nest broke up. The Nest was a group of recent high school graduates who sat in the upper deck of Kauffman Stadium for Byrd's starts this year. They wore feathers and beaks and saluted Byrd by flapping their arms as he walked off the mound after every inning; he returned the gesture by flapping back after the game ended. When several Nesters showed up for a Byrd start in Detroit in July, the righthander took them to a restaurant for dinner after the game. "The kids all had socks pulled up to their knees, wearing beaks and feathers," says Byrd. "They were like, 'Uh, Mr. Byrd, I think we broke the dress code.' "
Alas, most of the fan club's members have left for college in the last few weeks. As a parting gift the group presented Byrd with a signed banner proclaiming him THE GREATEST PITCHER IN BASEBALL. "I almost cried when they did that," says Byrd.
The empty nest couldn't have come at a worse time for Byrd, whose team was 53-78 at week's end. Fully recovered at last from shoulder surgery in 2000, Byrd started 14-7 this season but hadn't won in five August starts through Sunday. "It makes it hard," Byrd says of the Nest's absence. "When you're not in first place, things like that make it fun around here."