Colorado has history of rocky openers

Colorado has history of rocky openers

DENVER -- One of the big upcoming stories of Rockies Spring Training is the identity of the starter who will take the mound when the Rockies begin the season on April 6 against the D-backs at Chase Field. But one has to wonder if the lucky hurler should pull a football move and decline.

Let's just say the performances of the Rockies' past eight Opening Day starters, not only in the opener but in the full season, haven't been stellar.

With left-hander Jeff Francis unlikely to be ready that soon because of a sore shoulder, that responsibility probably will fall to someone else. And even though we'll hear that the opener is just one game, don't discount the responsibility. The first game and the opening three-game series carry some weight.

In 2008, the Rockies went 3-15 against the D-backs. The Rockies were mainly responsible for the D-backs contending until the final week of the season, and the D-backs were hugely responsible for the Rockies' 74-88 finish.

This year, the Rockies and D-backs play six times at Chase Field in the season's first month, then don't see one another again until July 3 at Coors Field. The Rockies simply must break the D-backs' dominance early. It starts with the opener.

Here's a review of the Rockies' not-so-impressive run of performances by their Opening Day starters:

2002: Buddy Bell was manager when Mike Hampton gave up nine hits and six runs in 3 2/3 innings of a 10-2 loss to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Opening Day. But Hampton -- in his second and final season with the Rockies, after signing an eight-year, $121 million contract -- became manager Clint Hurdle's responsibility when Bell was fired in late April. No one, however, could stop Hampton from falling apart and finishing 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA.

2003: Right-hander Jason Jennings gave up six third-inning runs. In all he gave up nine hits, including three home runs, and six runs in a 10-4 road loss to the Astros. Jennings won 16 games the previous year, but he finished the season with a 12-13 record and a 5.11 ERA.

2004: The least-likely Opening Day starter turned out to be the best of the Hurdle era. Shawn Estes, who came to camp on a Minor League deal and won the No. 1 designation, held the D-backs to one run on two hits in seven innings at Chase Field as the Rockies won, 6-2. Estes would finish 15-8 with a 5.84 ERA.

2005: Joe Kennedy, who had gone 9-7 with a 3.66 ERA the previous year, was tabbed as the starter. Kennedy gave up seven hits and six runs in five innings of a wild, 12-10 Rockies victory at Coors Field. Kennedy would continue to struggle. He was 4-8 with a 4.78 ERA when the Rockies dealt him to the Athletics just after the All-Star break.

2006: Jennings did well for openers -- six hits and one run in seven innings. He didn't figure in the decision as the Rockies beat the D-backs, 3-2, in 11 innings at Coors. But Jennings posted a 6.60 ERA in April. By season's end, he was an up-and-down 9-15, but with a respectable 3.78 ERA.

2007: Aaron Cook gave up nine hits and five runs in six innings as the Rockies lost to the D-backs at Coors, 8-6. Cook wouldn't gain consistency until after the All-Star break, but an oblique strain stopped him from a complete turnaround. He finished the year 8-7 with a 4.12 ERA. But Cook came back and pitched well in Game 4 of the World Series, even though the Red Sox completed a sweep.

2008: About the best that could be said for Francis' opener is it didn't count. Francis threw balls on his first 10 and 17 of his first 19 pitches, and trailed, 5-1, when rain washed away all the numbers. However, Francis would not get much better. He went 4-10 with a 5.01 ERA in a season cut short by shoulder issues that continue to nag him.

So that's one good season and two other decent ones in seven years. In many cases, the self-applied pressure of being the No. 1 pitcher has been a problem.

To that end, the last two years the Rockies have simply named their starter. Before that, the training camp competitions have extracted hard feelings from competitors -- Jennings, especially, could barely contain his anger in 2005 after Kennedy was chosen. Also, Hurdle has bristled at the intense attention from fans and media.

The Rockies have been careful about not assigning numbers to the pitchers in their possible rotation, but here's a look at the logical candidates to start 2009, from a matchup standpoint.

• The right-handed Cook is 5-4 with a 5.14 ERA in 18 games, 16 starts, against the D-backs. At Chase Field, he is 2-2 with a 6.17 ERA.

• Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, just signed for four years and $10 million, is 0-1 in four starts against the D-backs. He's had just two no-decisions at Chase Field, but he also has a sparkling 1.98 ERA in them.

• Right-hander Jason Marquis, obtained from the Cubs for relief pitcher Luis Vizcaino, has generally pitched well against NL West opponents. He is 0-3 at Chase, but has a respectable 3.60 ERA.

• There is a dark horse. Lefty Greg Smith, who went 7-16 with a 4.16 ERA as a rookie for the Athletics last season, will have to make the rotation first. But there could be an emotional bounce. He was a sixth-round pick of the D-backs in 2005, but was traded before reaching the Majors.

No matter who takes the ball on April 6, he has responsibility and history on his shoulders.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.