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Clutch? Rockies need to get in gear

Clutch hitting a sore spot for Rockies

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DENVER -- Coming into the 2008 season, the Rockies were not alone in expecting their lineup to be as formidable as any in the league. The reigning National League champions, last year's league leaders in batting average (.280), hits (1,591) and on-base percentage (.354), knew they would hit. The question -- as it often is in Colorado -- was whether their young pitching could keep up with an everyday lineup that found its stride last season.

But Colorado's lumber has been slow to awaken in 2008, with the Rockies entering Saturday's game with the Dodgers ranked 13th of the 16 teams in the NL and tied for 25th among the 30 Major League teams with a .246 batting average.

Most importantly, repeating a trend from early in the 2007 season, the club is hitting a collective .216 with runners in scoring position, highlighting a falling off in productivity in clutch situations. Though the Rockies struggled early with RISP last season, they finished strong, hitting .276, fifth best in the league.

"Will they hit?" manager Clint Hurdle asked himself out loud before Saturday's game. "Yes. But missed opportunities are just that, they're missed opportunities. You don't reclaim the opportunities that you've missed. We've got to set our sights and slow down this thing."

With seven returning starters in the Opening Day lineup, including four who hit over .300 in Garrett Atkins, Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, and Willy Taveras and only one who hit under .290, there is little question that the skills are there. But when a team goes into a collective slump, particularly in the clutch, it's the mental skills that come into question, the mind-set the players bring to the plate and the way they handle the snowballing pressure of breaking out of a team-wide funk.

"They're saying all the right things," Hurdle said. "The pressure should not be on us, it should be on the pitcher, that's true. Unfortunately, that's not the way we're reacting. Last night, we weren't getting in good situations. We first-pitch fired, we hooked balls to our pull side of the field consistently.

"So what they're telling me and what I'm seeing aren't matching up. That's when we have to have a little come-to-the-truth of this thing. Is it trying too hard? Is it trying for the big three-run swing? We've got to simplify things. We need the next guy to get on base, that's all. Not the next guy to get a three-run homer. We need the next guy to get on base. Then we need the next guy to get on base. There's no magic elixir. These guys have all played the game long enough to know what they don't need to do. Unfortunately we're getting caught in that area as much as anything."

Hurdle has tried most of the tricks at his disposal, from juggling the lineup and sitting slumping players to trying to lighten the mood, infusing a more relaxed, fun atmosphere on the club.

But while acknowledging the "contagious" quality of hitting, the Rockies must first find a serum for the slump-in-the-clutch bug permeating their lineup.

"We got to find a way out, that's all," Hurdle said. "It's a grown man's league. They know that. I know that. We just have to make the adjustment. If we get one guy hitting with runners in scoring position, they'll start falling like dominoes."

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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