NL West: Soft Rockies, resilient Snakes and Giants

All right, it might as well be announced and considered as official: The 2011 Colorado Rockies have a fork sticking out of their well-done haunches. Turn out the lights, the mile-high party’s over for this year.

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A little over a month ago, the underperforming-even-then Rockies were within two and a half games of first place. Now they’re closer to a dozen back. Colorado is running out of time, and their dump trade this weekend could hardly send a stronger signal that they have no expectations of being able to do anything about it.

Whatever chance they had of regaining a presence in this year’s division race meaningfully depended upon the results of a week-ago series: July 22-23-24, Colorado at Arizona. The Rockies came in to the series six games behind the second-place Diamondbacks. A Colorado sweep would suggest that, at least, a battle for second was at hand, and from third place there is no road to first that doesn’t go straight through second.

Waterloo in Phoenix

The series began well enough from the Denver perspective. On Friday night, the Rockies battled back from an early deficit and won going away, 8-4. They knocked the highly impressive Daniel Hudson out of the box in a go-ahead seventh inning, and overall racked up 13 hits, including three doubles and a triple. That’s the sort of noisy offense the Rockies have so rarely generated this year, especially on the road. Keep that up, and September on Blake Street might be interesting after all.

But, in a word, no. The Rockies not only failed to follow through with the sweep, not only losing both of the next games, but they were outscored to the tune of 19-3 while doing it. Colorado didn’t just lose this last-chance battle, they as much as failed to mount any charge.

Give the upstart Diamondbacks their propers, by all means. Arizona hasn’t really been challenging the Giants for first place over the past couple of weeks, but they’ve been holding their own in second. And this Colorado series—in which right fielder Justin Upton went 9-for-12 with four doubles, a triple, a homer, and a steal, and catcher Miguel Montero went 5-for-12 with a double, a triple, and a homer—sent a loud and clear message they have no immediate plans to regress.

So while the D-backs are now officially presenting the most surprisingly positive team story in the National League West of 2011, the Rockies are assuredly the most disappointing. What went wrong?

Deflated in Denver

In the season’s early weeks, frustrated Rockies fans were generally casting blame in the direction of the team’s trio of young stars: Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, left/center fielder Carlos Gonzalez, and ace starter Ubaldo Jimenez. But while none is on pace to produce his best season, all three have significantly “come around” as 2011 has progressed (though Jimenez has now been made an ex-Rockie for his troubles).

So the Colorado failure to meet expectations this year isn’t primarily the fault of the team’s best players. Instead, rather pointedly, it’s proven to be the fault of the team’s supporting cast. The bench in particular has been terrible: The Rockies’ lineup has persistently presented offensive sinkholes at second base, third base, and center field, and nothing resembling help from the dugout or the larger organization has been forthcoming.

Colorado’s June 30 trade importing veteran second baseman Mark Ellis has at least temporarily plugged that hole, but it remains to be seen how long the 34-year-old veteran continues to hit.

Most perplexing has been the utter offensive implosion of 26-year-old third baseman Ian Stewart. This left-handed hitter (who’s regarded as a good fielder) hadn’t been a star coming into this year, but he’d been consistently useful with the bat, generating power and drawing a few walks.

But, woah Nellie, not this year. We’ve seen some slumps in our time, but this one’s a doozie. It’s bringing back dreary memories of John Shelby in 1989, Dave Roberts in 1974, and George Scott in 1968. We’re talking doozie, here.

The road to October

So whatever race for the NL West flag develops the rest of the way is going to be just a two-teamer. Most pundits are assuming this one is the Giants’ to lose, and that’s a reasonable view. The San Francisco acquisition this week of star right fielder Carlos Beltran has been widely understood as being designed to boost the Giants’ chances of repeating last year’s postseason success, with the division title more or less expected.

But to dismiss the Diamondbacks would be imprudent. Their big surge was in late May and early June, and they haven’t been able to repeat that kind of hot streak. But they’ve hung tight and avoided any significant slumps so far this summer. The out-for-the-season loss of shortstop Stephen Drew to a broken ankle is a blow, for sure, and how this young and unproven team meets that test and performs through the dog days is an excellent question.

But to this point the Giants haven’t been able to put real daylight between themselves and the Snakes, and until they do no one should take a San Francisco division title for granted.

Standing tall in San Francisco

On Opening Day, if you’d told any Giants fan:
{exp:list_maker}Buster Posey will be knocked out for the season in late May.
Freddy Sanchez will be knocked out, probably for the season, in mid-June.
Pablo Sandoval, Jonathan Sanchez, and Barry Zito will all spend significant time on the DL before the end of July.
Zito will be close to useless when he is available.
Aubrey Huff will deliver one of his patented “down” years.
Highly-touted rookie slugger Brandon Belt will make a minimal contribution.
Miguel Tejada will be a complete bust, rendering shortstop a black hole.
Andres Torres will come back to reality, big time.
{/exp:list_maker}That Giants fan would have replied, “Well, that 2010 flag will fly forever, but we can kiss goodbye any hope for a 2011 repeat.”

Then tell that Opening Day fan, “Au contraire, despite all this adversity, the Giants will be sitting on a solid division lead as July draws to a close, on pace to win well over 90 games,” and that fan could be excused for nodding knowingly and smiling politely, and inquiring whether your preference is generally sativa or indica.

It’s one of those clichés we were taught as youngsters, just learning the game, but like most clichés it persists because it rests of a foundation of eternal truth: The measure of a genuinely good team is its ability to succeed when things go badly. Anybody, or almost anybody, can win when everyone’s healthy and everything’s going according to the preseason plan. But to win when the injuries are rampant and the slumps are robust is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.

If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that these 2011 Giants are the furthest thing from pretenders. They mean serious business. Beltran joins a ball club that is fully expecting to repeat as division champions, and authentically confident—not blusteringly, not giddily, but quietly and deeply confident—in its ability to present a formidable defense of its league title and its World Series championship.

The Giants plainly demonstrated last fall that they’re just the sort of team that can be exceptionally difficult to defeat under postseason conditions.

Within the past week these Giants played back-to-back, three-game series that might be, one or both, previews of direct confrontations we’ll be witnessing in October: San Francisco squared off against the Milwaukee Brewers, who could quite plausibly win the NL Central title, and against the Philadelphia Phillies, the defending NL East champs and current owners of the best record in Major League Baseball.

In both series, the Giants lost the first game while being held to just two runs, which is par for the course for San Francisco’s distinctly (pre-Beltran, especially) below-average offense. But also in both series, the Giants calmly and methodically came back and won the next two, while holding the stout Brewers’ and Phillies’ lineups to, respectively, two runs, one run, one run, and one run.

Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Tim Lincecum, in turn, racked up wins while Brian Wilson recorded a quartet of saves and the Giants’ endlessly deep bullpen racked up 10 and one-third innings of 0.00 ERA baseball. All in a week’s routine work for this staff.

To the extent that the Diamondbacks remain for real, it isn’t a certainty that San Francisco’s pitching will be someone’s migraine this fall. But it is probable.

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