In the parlance of baseball, it could be said that Jeff Francis was pitching naked today. That is to say, the young Canadian didn’t show up with his usual good stuff, and the result was his worst start in quite some time. Francis needed 97 pitches to get through four rough innings, and the division-leading Padres took it to the Rox with an 8-5 win this afternoon.
While Jeff’s strikeout pitches were there (he fanned five, mostly on fastballs and change-ups), his fastball command wasn’t. Francis found himself behind in the count early and often, and the mistakes he made really came back to hurt him, none more so than Brian Giles’ two-run triple with one out in the fourth. Giles’ blow made the score 6-2, and even though San Diego starter Pedro Astacio scuffled so badly that he didn’t make it past the third inning, the Rockies couldn’t piece enough offense together to keep things close.
I was at this one, along with 23,000+ others, and we baked in the 90 degree heat as we suffered through a three-hour ballgame that was much longer than it should have been. Francis was laboring and working slower than usual, for sure, but it didn’t help matters that Astacio was going to three-ball counts on nearly every hitter and taking roughly 15 seconds between each pitch, dangling and shaking his throwing arm. In addition, 11 pitchers were used in the game, making for some interminable times between innings as the new guy warmed up. I’m not usually one to complain about a day at the ballpark, but boy, did this one run long. Aside from the Rockies homers – a scintillating inside-the-park job by Dustan Mohr leading off the fourth and a Todd Helton solo shot in the ninth – the highlights of my afternoon were probably sucking down a strawberry Squishee in the sixth inning and listening to Captain Earthman banter with his customers in the left-field bleachers. (Sample dialogue, between Earthman the beer vendor and a thirsty fan: “Hey, Earthman, you got any Bud?” “Not the kind I can sell you in a ballpark!”)
Today’s game was the last before the three-day All-Star Break, which means one positive as the sun sets on this day in baseball: this miserable 2005 Rockies season is half over. As the homestretch approaches and the Rox play out the string, trying to avoid the ignominy of 100 losses (which, although possible, I wouldn’t call highly probable), it’s time to reflect on some of the bests – and worsts – of a forgettable first half. It’s Part One of my three-part Midseason Report Card – the awards ‘ceremony’.
The envelope, please…
MOST VALUABLE HITTER: Todd Helton
Hey, these are my awards, and I’m saying that a guy who still managed to maintain a fantastic OBP through the worst slump of his life is the most valuable of the Rockies hitters for the first half. It doesn’t hurt Helton’s case that he has turned things around offensively – his average is up to .288, and he hit 4 home runs on this most recent homestand, giving him 10 on the season. Throughout all his struggles, Helton has maintained not only his plate discipline, but also his status as the most feared hitter in the Rockies lineup (not that there’s much competition). While he scuffled through his slump, the Rockies floundered. Now that he’s hitting, the Rockies are a more competitive team. That tells me all I need to know when I’m choosing the most valuable hitter. No, his current numbers aren’t ‘Todd Helton numbers’, but does anyone want to bet that he’s not hitting .320 by the time the season is over? Didn’t think so.
MOST VALUABLE PITCHER: Brian Fuentes
This is a no-brainer. After gritting our teeth through countless ninth innings for the last season and a half, Fuentes assumed closing duties when Chin-Hui Tsao went down for the season and has become the automatic stopper the bullpen sorely lacked. The All-Star lefty is 12-for-14 in save chances this year. His demeanor never changes, not even when his back is to the wall as it was last night when he nearly coughed up Colorado’s 1-0 lead. Although he’s the subject of a few trade rumors, it would be ludicrous to trade Fuentes. The Rockies have lucked into a solution for their ninth-inning woes, and they won’t be enticed to give him up.
LEAST VALUABLE HITTER: Dustan Mohr
This is a toughie. I agonized over whether this award should go to JD Closser – and after his 0-for-5, 3 K performance this afternoon, I’m plenty fired up about JD’s offensive ineptitude – but at least Closser has shown the kind of plate discipline that lends me to believe that a turnaround isn’t out of the question. Mohr, on the other hand, is basically absolute zero at the plate. Brought in after a year in which he hit .274/.394/.437 in 263 AB with San Francisco, Mohr has flopped as the offensive-minded fourth outfielder he was brought in to be. Dustan’s line of .188/.232/.436 is positively atrocious, and although he has produced some power, he’s also striking out way more than is acceptable (51 K in 133 AB).
LEAST VALUABLE PITCHER: Joe Kennedy
Lot of candidates here but they all pail in comparison to “The Patriarch”, who has sired some dismal outings thus far this season. I think the Rockies missed the boat on trading Joe, who just seems to get worse and worse with every start. His 7.04 ERA is the worst of any National League starter. While he showed great control last year, this year, he’s been all over the place. It’s really been disheartening to see a guy that many of us fans figured had solved the Coors mystery last year struggle so badly. At this point, he’s not worth much on the trade market, although if Baltimore is serious about competing, they really ought to give the Rox a call and pursue Joe.
ROOKIE OF THE HALF-YEAR: Garrett Atkins
While we weep for Clint Barmes, remember that all is not lost offensively for Gen-R. Atkins, in particular, has shown that he’s a legit big-league hitter. I’m of the opinion that he hits the ball harder than anyone in the Colorado lineup, and if not for a few at-em balls that have found gloves, he could be hitting closer to .320. As it is, he’s hitting .306 with seven homers, and his defense continues to get better and better with each game. He’s found a home in the fifth spot in the order, and he’s made Ian Stewart’s early-season struggles in the minors much easier to stomach.
BEST FREE AGENT PICKUP: Jay Witasick
Yeah, I’m down with The Sickness. After a solid 2004 campaign with the Padres, Witasick has come in and is currently authoring the best season for a Rockies set-up man since Gabe White’s 2001 season. His 0-4 record is mostly a result of bad luck and doesn’t reflect just how excellent Jay has been in the eighth inning of close games. Witasick has posted a 2.52 ERA and fanned 40 in 35.2 IP.
GAME OF THE HALF-YEAR: Opening Day - Rockies 12, Padres 10
As if there could be any doubt. In the giddy optimism that followed this thrilling comeback victory, Rox owner Charlie Monfort predicted a division championship for his team. While we know now that such a thing isn’t going to happen… well, after that improbable win, capped by a walk-off homer by Clint Barmes off of Trevor Hoffman, anything seemed possible.
HITTING PERFORMANCE OF THE HALF-YEAR: Clint Barmes, 4/4/05
In the opener, Barmes went 4-for-6, drove in three runs, and hit the climactic homer to win the ballgame. That was only the start of what would look like a surefire Rookie of the Year campaign until his injury.
PITCHING PERFORMANCE OF THE HALF-YEAR: Jeff Francis, 6/30/05
In front of a large Busch Stadium crowd, facing the best offense in the National League, Francis gave the Cardinals fits in his six innings of work, allowing just three hits and fanning six while walking just two. The Rox went on to a 7-0 shutout win.
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of my Midseason Report Card, where I’ll grade the Rockies pitchers.