Can a season that looks bleak brighten itself? The Rockies hope so as they exit the All-Star break at 33-52, tied with the Cubs and ahead of only the Astros among Major League teams.
Ask Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler, and he'll give an answer with a smile that says it all. From April 16 to May 15, he had all of six days that ended with his batting average above .230, and fans were calling for his benching. He carries a .300 batting average into the All-Star break. Fowler said if he can do it, there's no reason his team can't.
"This is a work in progress," Fowler said. "We always battle. We're always going to work hard. It's going to be good to see the team when it all comes together."
The work has been painful.
Injuries, inexperience and Coors Field's dramatic turn to extreme hitter-friendly ways left the pitching in such bad shape that 10-year pitching coach Bob Apodaca stepped down, to be replaced by a two-headed system with Bo McLaughlin (up from Triple-A Colorado Springs to work with the starters) and Jim Wright (who handles the bullpen). The team also embarked on an unusual starting rotation structure, with four starters instead of the usual five, plus other pitchers poised to come in when the starter reaching a pitch limit that began at 75 but likely will rise. It took a stretch of improved work right before the break -- six games in an eight-game span that saw the starter go at least five innings and pitch well enough to win, or keep the team close -- to lower the starters' ERA to a still astronomical 6.11.
The lineup took a serious hit when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was forced out of action May 30 because of a left groin injury that required surgery on June 21 and is still six weeks from returning. The defense has committed a startling 68 errors.
Yet manager Jim Tracy stood before his club Sunday -- before the Rockies beat the Nationals, 4-3 -- and spoke of better times could begin at any time.
MVP: Carlos Gonzalez The All-Star has been the Rockies' top run producer even though his cohort, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, has missed much of the season with a left groin injury.
Cy Young: Jeff Francis Odd to mention Cy Young and one of the worst starting staffs ever in the same sentence, but Francis has pitched well in six of his seven starts since joining the club on June 9.
Rookie: Wilin Rosario The Rockies quickened his timetable when veteran Ramon Hernandez was injured, and Rosario responded by leading Major League rookies in home runs and showing growth defensively.
Top reliever: Matt Belisle In a place that wears out relievers quickly, Belisle is in his third straight season of high use and consistent production.
"I love the resiliency," Tracy said. "We're going through our phase of growing pains, no question about it. It's kind of intriguing. Look at what's been going on here pitching-wise as of late, and you're starting to see movement forward. There's one real key component to this ballclub that's not around right now [Tulowitzki]. You have to wonder what we were talking about with Dexter Fowler, stick with [rookie catcher] Wilin Rosario and get something done there, [outfielder-first baseman] Tyler Colvin's emergence, [hard-throwing lefty reliever] Rex Brothers taking out some significant innings down here.
"There are a lot of wonderful things to continue to look and build around, believe me. I told them this morning, 'The record is not where you want it to be, but let's see how much of the stuff we're talking about continues to show signs of improvement and moving in the right direction.'"
If any team needed a pep talk, it was the Rockies.
Before going a respectable 3-4 on a road trip against contending clubs St. Louis, they dropped 2-of-3 at home to the Padres, who were below them in the National League West at the time. The bummer against the Padres completed a 3-5 homestand. The Rockies went 0-6 on the previous homestand and are 18-25 at Coors, where they usually dominate.
The 5.87 home ERA for the staff -- starters and relievers -- is nearly a run higher than the next-highest in the Majors (the Twins at 4.91). The pitching woes trump the fact the Rockies entered the break leading the Majors in runs at home with 264 and tops in home batting average at .291 despite being shut out there three times.
Players to watch in second half
Tyler Colvin Cast off by the Cubs during the winter, Colvin has given the Rockies torrid streaks in April and from June 9 to the break.
Todd Helton He entered with a bad back, and by the break his hip was worse than his back; he'll get chances, but the health and age are forcing Helton, 38, to a less-than-full-time role.
Drew Pomeranz A lengthy stint in Triple-A seemed to allow Pomeranz the unlock the potential that made him a top five overall pick in 2010.
"We [pitchers] have done better the last two weeks," said left-hander Jeff Francis, who was with the club 2004-10, rejoined in June and has gone 2-2 with a 5.19 ERA in seven starts, all but one competitive. "We've executed better as a pitching staff, as a starting staff. We haven't won as much as we'd like to. We've made some adjustments. We still have a lot to do and a lot to prove. We still think we can do a lot better."
Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies' lone All-Star Game representative, said the team simply has to concentrate on improving and avoid focusing on negative numbers. In their 20th season, the Rockies have never lost 100 games in a year, but hit the 50 mark in the 81st game -- the midpoint.
"We don't set loser goals, like, 'We don't want to lose 100,'" Gonzalez said. "We're going to be competing all year, not because we don't want to lose 100 but because we want to play well. It's hard to look at it.
"So we don't concentrate on that. We're going to get better and compete every night. At the end of the year, whatever happens, happens. We just have to turn the page and finish strong."