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Rockies in a familiar position after strong start

Rockies in a familiar position after strong start

Rockies in a familiar position after strong start
DENVER -- Despite meeting their goal of starting strong after a tradition of slow starts, the Rockies find themselves right where they've been in recent years -- needing a strong second half to meet their playoff aspirations.

They started the season 11-2, a pace no team can expect to maintain. But thanks to an 8-17 performance in May and startling difficulties in close games because of uncharacteristic fundamental breakdowns, they are once again playing catchup in the National League West.

To turn things around in the second half, the Rockies face challenges because of some unexpected issues that occurred during the first half. For example:

• Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and No. 1 starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez all slumped during the first two months. With Tulowitzki and Gonzalez not hitting at the same time, the lineup had trouble producing runs. Jimenez battled through an injury during the first month, and had low run support -- a bad combination.

• No. 2 starting pitcher Jorge De La Rosa, the Rockies' best pitcher during the first two months, suffered a season-ending left elbow injury on May 24. He underwent Tommy John surgery, and might not be back until next May or later.

• Opening Day third baseman Ian Stewart, compromised at the outset of the season because of injuries he sustained during the spring, began the year 3-for-47 and spent most of his time at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Joining Stewart in the struggling category was original leadoff man Dexter Fowler, a switch-hitter who dealt with high strikeout totals and a long swing from the left side. Fowler joined Stewart at Colorado Springs.

AT THE BREAK
First-half awards
  1. MVP: Troy Tulowitzki -- The batting average isn't where he wants it, but his run production and defense were at All-Star levels
  2. Cy Young: Jhoulys Chacin -- In his first year in the season-opening rotation, Chacin stepped up big time when lefty Jorge De La Rosa suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
  3. Rookie: Charlie Blackmon -- Blackmon has the talent and confidence to secure a spot for years to come.
  4. Top reliever: Huston Street -- Healthy from the start this year after missing the early part of last season, Street has piled up the saves -- albeit in more exciting fashion than some fans would like.
Players to watch in the second half
  1. Todd Helton: If he stays healthy and keeps up his first-half production, he could be a difference maker.
  2. Juan Nicasio: His secondary pitches need work, so can his fastball carry him to success?
  3. Rafael Betancourt: When he's on, the game is shorter. But he struggled for periods during the first half.
Stewart returned and pushed his average to .106 in the final game before the break. When rookie outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who was called up when Fowler was demoted, suffered a broken foot, Colorado called up longtime Minor Leaguer Cole Garner rather than Fowler. However, in his last 10 games with Colorado Springs, Fowler has hit .385 (15-for-39) with two home runs, three doubles, two steals in two attempts and a .489 on-base percentage.

The Rockies have a chance for their usual late second-half run because, at least, the first of the aforementioned situations began correcting itself before the All-Star break -- to a point.

Tulowitzki homered in three straight games during the last homestand before the break, and handled RBI situations as well as anyone after his rough start. Gonzalez suddenly turned torrid after being moved to the leadoff spot. Jimenez is still not throwing at peak velocity because he battled a cut cuticle on his right thumb that cost him two starts, and pitched through muscle strains in his right leg. Yet, starting with a four-hit shutout of the Dodgers on June 1, Jimenez returned to his stingy pitching form that made him last year's NL starter in the All-Star Game.

Storm clouds came the week before the break, however, when Gonzalez missed time with a bruised right wrist and Tulowitzki strained his right quadriceps. Both were temporarily out of the lineup. But Blackmon, who had given the team a lift, underwent surgery to insert a pin in the foot and won't be able to begin activity for at least five to six weeks.

Tulowitzki was able to play in the All-Star Game, and went 1-for-2. Gonzalez came back for one game before the break, but he experienced more pain. He is hoping an anti-inflammatory shot taken during the break will help.

The Rockies went 4-0-1 in five series in June, indicating that they are capable of a rebound. Whether Gonzalez or Tulowitzki -- or both -- have struggled or thrived, first baseman Todd Helton has produced all year, returning to the .320-level hitter he's been for more than a decade.

Ty Wigginton, an offseason free-agent signing, provided enough run production to earn regular playing time. Also, a trade with the Athletics that landed second baseman Mark Ellis, who produced hits and runs immediately after joining the Rockies, offered hope that the lineup will click once everyone is healthy. Closer Huston Street has given opponents opportunities and went through a home run-prone stretch, but he has still converted a large number of save opportunities.

Club breakdowns
Video recaps

However, with damaging ills and injuries, the question has become, "Have the Rockies struggled too much to be a contender?" More accurately, the question is whether they truly believe they are as good as they thought they were heading into the season.

"It's a tough question," Tulowitzki said. "We're not winning as much as we'd like, so you start to question yourself. At the same time, when we get on that roll, we feel like we're a good team. We just need to believe in it, and go out there and prove it."

That also means some of those who have struggled must find their form. Stewart was recalled to the Majors before the break. Right-handed reliever Rafael Betancourt has been backed out of the eighth inning twice because of slumps, and needs to re-establish himself as the eighth-inning option. Right-handed former ace Aaron Cook missed the season's first two months with a finger injury, and was still a work in progress going into the break.

Ellis' acquisition gives the club more time to develop Chris Nelson, who showed some early promise when called up, but struggled offensively in his final days and proved to still be raw defensively at second. It wasn't until this year, even, that Colorado decided to try him at second, rather than make him a utility player.

The Rockies do not anticipate adding a hitter, even though there may be an opening. Blackmon hit .255 through 27 games after being promoted from Triple-A Colorado Springs, but suffered a broken foot on July 7 and won't be able to do intense activity for five to six weeks.

Wigginton, who signed as a utility man but has produced runs at a starter's level, has become the first outfield option, and Ryan Spilborghs has seen his time increase, especially with Gonzalez dealing with his nagging wrist injury.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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