DENVER -- The Rockies have every reason to be excited for the stretch run of the regular season.
They'll begin the post-break schedule 46-50 and 4 1/2 games behind the National League West-leading D-backs.
But just before the season's recess, leadoff man Dexter Fowler and cleanup hitter Troy Tulowitzki returned from lengthy periods of injury. With a lineup that includes power from Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer, who joined Tulowitzki at the All-Star Game, as well as catcher Wilin Rosario, suddenly the Rockies have intact the heart of an offense that was a key to a 19-13 start that was good for first place in the division.
And in an NL West where a team can rise quickly by turning hot for a short period, the schedule offers an opportunity -- a 10-game homestand out of the break against the Cubs, Marlins and Brewers. Miami and Milwaukee are last in their divisions and Chicago, although not much worse than Colorado record-wise, is next to last in the Central.
But there are still questions.
The Rockies have found three staff leaders in right-handers Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood, and lefty Jorge De La Rosa, who are a combined 23-12 with a 4.36 ERA and 188 strikeouts to 97 walks. But the back of the rotation remains a question. The late bullpen mix of closer Rafael Betancourt, Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle is in solid shape, but middle relief has been inconsistent. The bench has been in flux for much of the year.
Still, after losing a club-record 98 games last year, the Rockies are much closer to the top of the division than anyone expected, and they are hungry under first-year manager Walt Weiss. The performances of Chacin and De La Rosa, who were injured much of last year, and Chatwood, who battled control issues and bounced between the Majors and Minors last season, give Colorado reason to believe.
|MVP: LF Carlos Gonzalez
Even when Troy Tulowitzki was hurt, Gonzalez was the most consistent slugger in the NL in the first half.
|Cy Young: RHP Jhoulys Chacin
Chacin's efficiency and ability to force ground balls make him the poster hurler for the Rockies' strategy of keeping pitch counts tight.
|Rookie: 3B Nolan Arenado
Arenado was hot with the bat early, but has tailed off; however, his defense has been dazzling.
|Top reliever: LHP Rex Brothers
Brothers was the closer when Betancourt was out with a right groin injury; that period coincided with Brothers setting a club record for a scoreless-innings streak by a reliever.
"Our pitching has done a nice job, but we've got a good group of guys," Weiss said. "I like the way they show up every day. I like the way they compete. Coming off a rough year last year, my big priority was to get these guys to believe that's not who they are. That's not part of their identity as a club and I think they're past that."
The Rockies hope one of the starters they need is one who has been with them the whole time.
Right-hander Juan Nicasio drove the club mad with his periods of dominance followed by inexplicable tentativeness, often in the same game. The pattern led to a demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs on June 28. But after two lights-out Minor League starts, Nicasio returned Friday night and held the Dodgers scoreless in seven innings in a 3-0 victory. It was the first time this season Nicasio had thrown a pitch in the seventh.
Nicasio missed large portions of the previous two seasons with injuries.
"I'm encouraged by the way we played and the way we competed and the way our pitchers -- our starters in particular -- have performed considering we started the year with four guys that virtually didn't pitch last year," Weiss said. "De La Rosa has had an outstanding first half after being one of the guys that didn't pitch last year, and hopefully Juan keeps improving and shows signs of what he did the other night."
The fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, although lefty Drew Pomeranz has it for now. Pomeranz, struggling with command issues, was sent to Double-A Tulsa for one start before the break, with the idea of bringing him back to the rotation when the season continues. If he isn't better, there could be other options.
Players to watch in second half
|SS Troy Tulowitzki
The Rockies' Gold Glove defensive leader and cleanup man was putting up NL Most Valuable Player Award-worthy numbers before suffering a broken rib, and could win the award if he stays healthy and pushes Colorado to the playoffs.
|LHP Jorge De La Rosa
His healthy return from a year and a half marred by elbow problems is a key reason the Rockies have a chance.
|RF Michael Cuddyer
If he hits like he did during an All-Star first half, and other lineup components stay healthy, he deepens an already dangerous batting order.
Lefty Jeff Francis, who struggled early and has been retooling at Colorado Springs, could get another chance after the break. Righty Collin McHugh, who came from the Mets for outfielder Eric Young Jr., and long-ago Rockies ace righty Aaron Cook also are at Colorado Springs. The Rockies also made a Minor League deal with the Reds for right-hander Armando Galarraga -- who has pitched in the Majors for the Rangers, Tigers, D-backs and Astros -- and will send him to Colorado Springs. Hard-throwing prospect Chad Bettis has returned from injury and is pitching at Double-A Tulsa.
For the Rockies to truly contend, they must have a deep bullpen. In an effort to avoid injuries that have occurred frequently with starters over the life of a franchise that plays at mile-high altitude, the Rockies aren't letting pitchers go much over 100 pitches. If that figure is reached after six innings and the Rockies have a lead, Weiss can hand the game to the trio of Belisle, Brothers and Betancourt.
However, if a reliever is needed in the sixth or earlier, there is some uncertainty.
Edgmer Escalona (1-2, 4.58 ERA) has done the best job, but after missing three weeks with right elbow inflammation, he posted a 7.20 ERA in his final four appearances before the break. Adam Ottavino (0-1, 2.47 ERA) was consistent for much of the first half but gave up runs in five of his last seven outings. Righty Manuel Corpas (0-2, 4.58 ERA) posted a 6.57 ERA in his final six outings prior to the break.
Part of the issue was when Escalona and Betancourt, who missed time with a right groin strain, were out, roles were jumbled. The Rockies' chances of scaling the division increase if this group of pitchers catches fire.
"Our bullpen's been one of our strengths -- it hasn't been perfect, I don't think any element of anybody's game is going to be perfect," Weiss said. "Losing Betancourt was a challenge for us. You take a guy out of the back end of the bullpen, and on top of that we lost Escalona, who was playing a big role early on.
"You take two guys out of a bullpen and it becomes a little more challenging, and it was for us, but I think the guys have done a nice job."
The Rockies also are on the lookout for trades, especially for a starter or a reliever, although they tend not to give up prized prospects. The right-handed bench could get a lift from the low-risk pickup of veteran outfielder/first baseman Xavier Nady, who is at Colorado Springs.
However they fill other holes, the Rockies believe in their regular lineup.
"When we're at full strength, we're a really good team. I think we've shown that," Cuddyer said. "The front office, I think, is prepared to make a move if they feel they need to, but as far as I'm concerned, staying healthy is the big thing looking forward to the second half. I really like our team."
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.