TRACY HAS COLORADO ROCKIN’

By Murray Chass

June 28, 2009

When the Colorado Rockies won 11 games in a row and 13 of 14 in 2007, the streak came in September and catapulted them into a tie for the National League wild-card spot in the playoffs. When they won a playoff game and their next seven games for a 21-of-22 stretch, the streak came in October and propelled them into the World Series.

Now, less than two years later, the Rockies have reeled off another 11-game winning streak and won 17 of 18 games. However, no playoff spot is immediately at stake, only the Rockies’ self-respect.

“When you’re that many games under .500 you don’t worry about where you are in the standings,” Dan O’Dowd, the Colorado general manager, said of the team that went from 10 games under .500 to 4 games over but was still about 10 games from first place. “Just try to play as well as we can and if at the end of the year we’re not good enough, we dug ourselves too deep a hole.”

The Rockies dug an 18-28 hole under Clint Hurdle, which is why O’Dowd fired him May 28 and replaced him with the bench coach, Jim Tracy (at right).

“Clint’s a dear friend of mine,” O’Dowd said. “It’s the most difficult decision I’ve had to make here in 10 years. He’s such a quality person. I think Jim’s had an effect because he’s a different type personality. He has had a settling effect on the club.”

Tracy managed the Los Angeles Dodgers for five seasons and the Pittsburgh Pirates for two. He was serving on Hurdle’s coaching staff with another former manager, Don Baylor, the hitting coach.

Why did O’Dowd choose Tracy as the new manager? “We thought it was the right thing to do for the club,” he said. “As bench coach, Jimmy worked with Clint and we felt he had a better feel for the over-all picture of the club.”

Tracy evidently knew enough about the players to induce them to play at a higher level than they achieved under Hurdle.

 

The Rockies under Hurdle

Under Tracy (before Saturday)

W-L Record

18-28

20-7

B.A.

.249

.279

Runs / Game

4.89

5.48

E.R.A.

4.93

3.71

“We’re different in that we’ve become a much more aggressive team,” Tracy said. “Early in the season we were doing things that weren’t conducive to winning. Offensively we were far too passive, taking third strikes. We weren’t putting ourselves in position to test the defense and force the opposition to make plays.”

Now, the manager said, the team is playing with “patient aggression,” explaining, “We’re not expanding our strike zone and getting ourselves out. We’re patient early in the count, fight off pitches when we have two strikes and get pitch counts up.”

The change in style of play has resulted not only in more wins but also in a different clubhouse environment.

“There’s an awareness that I didn’t see earlier in the season,” Tracy said. The awareness isn’t about winning games; it’s about how to go about winning games.

“We’re not thinking in this clubhouse about what we’ve done,” Tracy said, meaning the rush of victories. “It’s become an expectation. We come to the park every day expecting to win. These guys show up every day and their only business is do we have more runs than the other team at the end of the night.” And, he added, “We think about winning series. If you’re in a hole, that’s how you get out of it.”

Since Tracy replaced Hurdle the Rockies have won six of eight series, sweeping four of them, including a four-game series in St. Louis and the ensuing three-game series in Milwaukee, whose Brewers were in first place in the N.L. Central at the time.

“We were the third team in the last 60 years to go into St. Louis and win four games,” Tracy said.

In their first week under Tracy, the Rockies lost four in a row, then didn’t lose two in a row again until last week when the Angels beat them, once in a 4-3 game the Rockies felt they should have won.

“Our clubhouse was like a church,” Tracy said, describing the players’ reaction to the loss. “The game left a very sour taste in our mouth. We felt we should have won the ball game. To me, that was good.”

Tracy has not inspired the Rockies with his good looks. He did make some moves when he became the manager. He installed Clint Barmes (at left) as the regular second baseman and made him the No. 2 hitter in the lineup, and he committed to Ian Stewart at third. Before Tracy, Barmes was hitting .234 and Stewart .187. Under Tracy Barmes is hitting .330, Stewart .247.

“We increased our athleticism,” O’Dowd said, “and improved our over-all team speed and our over-all defense. Every aspect of the game we’ve played better. We’re throwing more strikes and running the bases not only aggressively but intelligently.”

Even the pitchers’ defense has improved, Tracy said. “We were making mistakes from the mound,” he said, “whether it’s throwing or fielding. We weren’t doing what pitchers should do to help the team win.”

I asked O’Dowd if he saw any similarities between this team and the 2007 team. “I would say there’s a similarity in team chemistry,” he said. “The core of our players have a good chemistry and we had good chemistry in ‘07.”

The Rockies would like to finish the season in a similar way to their 2007 counterparts. Their 17-of-18 stretch slashed six and a half games from their Dodgers’ deficit but still left them nine games behind the division leaders. However, it catapulted the Rockies into the thick of the wild-card chase, which is what the 2007 streak did for them.

KEVIN, MEET ALBERT

Kevin Slowey is a good young pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. For his most recent start, Slowey faced St. Louis Saturday with a 10-2 record, tied for the major league lead in victories. The 25-year-old right-hander had never faced Albert Pujols, the Cardinals’ bruising slugger.

Their first confrontation came in the first inning. Skip Schumaker led off with a double and one out later Pujols fouled Slowey’s first pitch, took a ball, fouled another pitch, took the next two pitches for balls, fouled two more pitches, then drove Slowey’s eighth pitch over the left-center field fence.

Before Pujols batted again, in the third inning, the Twins scored three runs and took a 3-2 lead. But with one out in the third, Schumaker singled and after another out Pujols swung at Slowey’s first pitch and whacked it over the left field fence, giving him major league-leading figures of 28 home runs and 74 runs batted in.

Slowey was finished after that inning. Pujols went to bat two more times and walked both times.

WHY IS MANNY IN THE MINORS?

Time flies when Manny is having fun, and so it is that Manny Ramirez is eligible, barring a rainout or an earthquake in Los Angeles this week, to return from his 50-game suspension Friday in San Diego.

In advance of his return, Ramirez has been working out with Dodgers minor league teams, raising eyebrows and questions, mainly why he has he been allowed to work out with teams affiliated with the major league team from which he was suspended after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances.

“Because it’s in the joint drug agreement that he is,” Rob Manfred, management’s chief labor executive, said. “It was a union proposal that depending on the length of the suspension the player wouldn’t be able to ready himself to return to work.”

The rational behind the reason for the workouts makes sense. If a player were not permitted to work out, he would have to work out when his suspension ended and would not be ready to play. The club would then be penalized because it would be paying the player again and not have his services.

Baseball is being criticized for permitting the Ramirez workouts, but as Manfred said, it’s in the agreement. A suspended player, on the other hand, could work out elsewhere on his own, but his club wouldn’t be satisfied with that. Teams like to supervise their players’ workouts, especially after they have been idle for 50 days.

Baseball’s minor league drug agreement allows players to work out with their teams before their suspensions are over.

The Dodgers incidentally have increased their division lead without Ramirez, from six and a half games to eight before Saturday’s game.

SMOLTZ PLAYS SPOILER

John Smoltz last week ruined the chance for the Hall of Fame to have its first pitching trifecta in 2014. By making his first start for Boston, Smoltz delayed his eligibility for the Hall by a year and will not be able to join Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as players elected on their first time on the ballot in 2014.

The Hall has inducted three players at the same time, most recently in 1999 when Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount were elected, but it has never had three pitchers at the same time.

Maddux is retired, and Glavine has said he will not play this season after Atlanta released him. However, the 305-game winner has not ruled out attempting a comeback next season. All three pitchers are expected to be elected in their first year of eligibility.

Unlike Glavine and Maddux, Smoltz is not a 300-gamer winner, but he has achieved the rare combination of 210 victories plus 154 saves in a span of less than four seasons as a closer.

NO NEW GUIDELINES FOR STEROIDS VOTERS

Contrary to what some people think, baseball writers can make intelligent decisions. The Chicago chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America met Friday to discuss, at a member’s request, guidelines for voting for the Hall of Fame in the steroids era.

When I first heard about the meeting, I was concerned that the chapter would, in some misguided way, adopt guidelines, and they could spread to other chapters and writers. But fear not.

“We debated it for about half an hour,” Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune, the chapter chairman, said. “Everyone had a different opinion.”

There was no consensus to develop guidelines, Sullivan said. Everyone agreed, he added, that the existing Hall of Fame rule governing voting mentioning character, integrity and sportsmanship was appropriate for steroids users.

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, said nobody has asked Hall officials to do anything about the voting or guidelines for the voting.

“We’re comfortable with the rules as they are,” he said despite calls from some voters to issue special guidelines. “We have great confidence that the writers, as we always have had, that they’ll continue to exercise good judgment and use their own instincts. I don’t think you can argue that the writers have elected someone they shouldn’t have.”

Idelson’s view is refreshing. A previous administration changed the rules to make sure Pete Rose would not be elected after being suspended for violating baseball’s cardinal sin of gambling on baseball. Officials did not trust the voters to reject Rose.

Chapters and individuals, in my opinion, should be free to discuss the subject as much as they want, but guidelines for writers to follow? I suggest they keep those to themselves. I think it would be a bad precedent for any chapter to create so-called guidelines.

Furthermore, if writers need someone to tell them how they should vote, they shouldn’t be voting. It is a difficult task with which voters are faced, but we can each decide for ourselves what our guidelines should be.

 

 

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.