It took victories in the last couple of days of the regular season, against Arizona’s B-squad, for Colorado to force a one-game playoff for the National League wild card, but the Rockies are taking full advantage of the opportunity. They won the sudden-death contest against the Padres, and then swept the Phillies in the Division Series, restricting the highest-scoring offense in the league to eight runs over the three games. The Rockies have now won 19 of their last 20 .
Mind you, that 19th game was the opener of the final series against Arizona, when Brandon Webb held them to two runs, and the series perhaps turns on how Webb handles the and vice versa. Before that outing, the reigning Cy Young winner had struggled against Colorado. In the first five starts facing them in 2007, he had an ERA of 6.47, allowing 35 hits and 15 walks in 32 innings. The latter figure may be the key, as his control was noticeably better in that last start. He walked two in seven frames, around his overall figure of 2.74 per nine innings. Keeping those free passes down will go a long way to making Webb as dominant against Colorado, as he has been against almost everyone else.
Despite these two being divisional rivals, we don’t have much reliable historical data to go on, even though they met 18 times in the regular season. That’s because the majority of these were early on in the year, and both teams have improved significantly since that point. The vagaries of the schedule pitted Colorado against Arizona 12 times inside the first 50 games, then not from mid-May until the last game in August. Even the six games in the final month—the Rockies won four—are little help since, as noted, the Diamondbacks rested most of their key players after Webb’s win clinched a playoff spot. Neither subsequent starter, Edgar Gonzalez or Yusmeiro Petit, are in the playoff rotation for Arizona, making it hard to draw any conclusions from the results.
In many ways, these two organizations are similar, building from within, rather than through expensive free-agents. Both franchises had 14 home-grown players on their postseason roster in the first round, and the combined salaries are less than the Mets, who will be enjoying the post-season only on TBS. With the addition of Cleveland, it’s been a good year for low-budget outfits: only Boston of the four remaining teams ranks outside the bottom third in payroll, with Colorado ranked 25th and Arizona 26th in terms of salary. And, in Arizona’s case, that’s with $16 million now sitting on the DL, courtesy of Randy Johnson, Orlando Hudson and Chad Tracy.
This could be the first of several postseason encounters between the two teams, as they are young and likely to improve, with stable rosters. The starting lineups for the first game here, might well be the starting lineups for both teams on Opening Day next year—neither is scheduled to suffer major losses through free agency. Arizona will lose starter Livan Hernandez, and may not re-sign veteran first baseman Tony Clark, while Colorado have to deal with pitcher Josh Fogg and infielder Kaz Matsui, whose contracts are up over the winter. Otherwise, the core of the sides are set to battle for NL West domination over the coming seasons.
Looking at their division series performances, both teams scored 16 runs in their three games, and posted very similar batting averages too: Arizona hit .266, Colorado .267. The Diamondbacks showed a bit more power, and that’s reflected in an OPS edge .890/.834. These were improvements on the regular season performances, and were closer to their figures over the final month of the regular season (AZ: .811; CO: .861). Arizona got a huge boost from Stephen Drew, 7-for-14 with two homers in three games, after batting .238 with only 12 homers the rest of the year. Colorado’s unofficial MVP was probably Matsui, who went 5-for-12 with 6 RBI.
Again, we can probably expect Arizona to have their wheels up if they reach base. Four different players stole bases against Chicago, and there’s discussion about possibly adding the ultra-speedy Emilio Bonifacio to the roster for this series—he stole 157 bases over the past three minor-league seasons. Certainly, there’d possibly seem room for some tactical adjustments by Arizona manager Bob Melvin, as six men on the roster saw no action at all in the Division Series. Adding a pitcher instead of a position player is another possibility, given the chance that Coors Field might be rough on arms.
With the way the off-days are scheduled (there’s a weird one during the Colorado leg), either team could use their Game 1 on short rest in Game 4, then bring them back on regular rest for Game 7. However, that would probably be a last-ditch, three games down scenario for either manager, and I find it tough to see this series being a blow-out, in either direction. Six or seven games seems much more likely than four or five, and with the last two scheduled for Arizona, that could be crucial – both sides won fifty or more home games, while playing below .500 on the road. I expect that to continue, with Arizona winning Game 7 in front of a packed, rocking Chase Field.
However, after our B-squad made the final out in the regular season, throwing Colorado a life-line, my wife turned to me and said, “I think we might regret not winning that.” We’ll see in the next few days if those words prove to be prophetic.