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Thursday, July 16, 2009
Rockies respond to regime change

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

The National League wild-card race is looking more chaotic than an episode of "Jon & Kate Plus 8." Or a Brock Lesnar family picnic.

Combatants? We have a few. San Francisco and Atlanta both have strong pitching and questionable hitting. Florida always finds a way to hang around. The Mets could still be a threat if a few players get healthy, and the Central Division is one big dysfunctional jumble of flawed teams with serious aspirations.

All things considered, the Colorado Rockies are just happy to be in the conversation. Think back to the end of May, when bad fundamentals and worse execution added up to an 18-28 record, and the Rockies were poised for the obligatory June white sale.

Jim Tracy
The Rockies open the second half just two games behind the Giants in the NL wild-card race.
The window for introspection is short when teams underachieve, and general managers respond in different ways. Cleveland's Mark Shapiro has been consistent in his support of Eric Wedge because he believes it would be a "cop-out" to blame the manager for front-office decisions that backfired. That's a noble sentiment, for sure, but Wedge's best efforts haven't pulled the Tribe out of a season-long death spiral.

In contrast, Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd acted boldly and ordered a shakeup when the Rockies were tanking seven weeks into the season. He fired Clint Hurdle, Colorado's manager since 2002, and promoted bench coach Jim Tracy to the position.

Judging from his comments at the time, O'Dowd made the move out of a sense of resignation more than a belief that changing managers would be some sort of magic elixir. To put it bluntly, he was sick of watching bad baseball.

"If I felt stability was going to get us through this, we would have stayed with Clint," O'Dowd told reporters at the news conference announcing the managerial switch. "But it was obvious that wasn't going to work."

Call it coincidence, luck or a short-term bump that's destined to fade, but Colorado baseball is suddenly relevant again. When the Rockies play San Diego on Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series at Petco Park, it will be with a renewed sense of purpose.

The Rockies are 29-13 since Tracy took over for Hurdle. The last time Denver was this fired up about baseball, Matt Holliday was wiping the blood off his chin after Game No. 163 of the 2007 season.

It's been a professional revival of sorts for Tracy, who appeared to be running out of chances in October 2007 when the Pirates fired him and ate the $1 million left on his contract. Tracy's critics in Pittsburgh said the move was necessary because he never showed emotion, got mad or held players accountable for their poor performances.

That version of Jim Tracy is nowhere to be found in Colorado. He's been straightforward, decisive and quick to let the players know where they stand. After being characterized as a doormat in Pittsburgh, Tracy made a point of establishing who was in charge in Colorado.

"He came in with an attitude of 'You guys are going to be held accountable for the way you play and the way you act on and off the field, and if you're not doing your job, you're not going to play,'" said pitcher Jason Marquis. "There were a lot of guys who had a lot of security with Clint being around. Now with Tracy, it's about winning. It's not about developing."

Hurdle was charismatic in a Tommy Lee Jones sort of way, with his big personality, booming voice and assortment of inspirational homilies. The Colorado players liked him personally, and several admitted to a sense of guilt over costing him his job. But when Hurdle's message stopped resonating and the atmosphere grew stale, a change was inevitable.

"Clint was the only manager I ever had in the big leagues," said All-Star outfielder Brad Hawpe. "I wouldn't be in the situation I'm in if he hadn't given me so many opportunities. But after a certain amount of time, things happen. That's the tough part about this job: When you're not winning, people have to go. It could have been the players just as easily as the manager."

[Manager Jim] Tracy handles the bullpen differently and he lets the starters go longer than I've ever seen here. I think that instills some confidence in the starters.

-- Rockies RF Brad Hawpe
Several players with roots in the Colorado farm system are playing inspired ball under the new regime. Ian Stewart, who hit .141 in May, has nine homers and 24 RBIs in 128 at-bats since taking over for Garrett Atkins as the Rockies' primary third baseman. Clint Barmes, Colorado's former shortstop of the future, has settled in nicely as the second baseman of the present. He hit .314 with 19 RBIs in June.

Troy Tulowitzki, so self-assured as a rookie and confused the second time around the league, is tied for the club lead with 16 homers and playing his usual terrific defense at short. And rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler is getting more comfortable by the day in the leadoff spot.

The Rockies' revival is spanning generational lines. Todd Helton, finally healthy again, has been a rock in the middle of the batting order at age 35.

Colorado is one of only eight big league clubs with a winning record on the road, so these aren't your father's Blake Street Bombers. The pitching staff has posted a 3.73 ERA in June and July compared to 4.85 in April and May.

Tracy has provided a stabilizing influence by showing enough faith in his starters to let them work out of jams. Colorado's rotation is going deeper in games, and that has alleviated some of the pressure on the bullpen.

With 52 quality starts, the Rockies rank third among NL staffs behind the Cubs and Diamondbacks. Colorado's relievers have logged only 245 innings, the second-lightest bullpen workload in the majors.

"Tracy handles the bullpen differently and he lets the starters go longer than I've ever seen here," Hawpe said. "I think that instills some confidence in the starters. And he kind of lit a fire underneath the tails of the bullpen."

Marquis, the National League leader with 11 victories, is the staff's resident workhorse. Although his 58-to-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio is nothing special, Marquis has made some subtle changes to his delivery that allow him to pitch more effectively down in the strike zone on a consistent basis.

According to FanGraphs, Colorado starters Aaron Cook, Marquis and Ubaldo Jimenez rank second, third and fifth in the National League in ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio -- always a good thing at Coors Field. They've turned into the Mountain Time Zone's answer to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The big question now is whether Marquis can maintain it. He's a career 60-39 with a 4.16 ERA before the All-Star break and 30-37, 4.93 after the break, so August and September could be a challenge for him.

As the trade deadline approaches, O'Dowd is going to have to do something to fortify the bullpen. Veteran reliever Alan Embree suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a Martin Prado line drive last week, and it's asking a lot for the Rockies to keep relying on Matt Daley, Joel Peralta, Juan Rincon and converted starters Josh Fogg and Franklin Morales.

The Rockies are 17-7 under Tracy in games decided by one or two runs, and closer Huston Street has converted 22 of 23 save opportunities. So the Colorado players have faith that if they can keep it close, the master strategist in Tracy will find a way to win it.

"He doesn't go by instincts," Hawpe said. "To me, it feels like he has a formula in his mind to win a ballgame, and he sticks with it. It's very impressive to watch."

Colorado and San Francisco, the current wild-card leader, will meet 13 times in the second half, so life is going to be interesting in the NL West even if the Rockies can't make a run at the first-place Dodgers.

Are the Rockies merely a fun midseason diversion, or a legitimate contender with staying power? That remains to be seen. But they have a pulse, and that's a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.