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Streaky first half has Rockies in the mix

Streaky first half has Rockies in the mix

DENVER -- The Rockies expected to be contenders this season. So being two games back in the Wild Card race and within reach of the Dodgers in the National League West could not be called a surprise.

2009 Midterm Report

But no one imagined the Rockies' route to their midseason status.

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It seems like long ago that the Rockies were talking about a back-to-basics Spring Training to correct the execution woes that led to a 74-88 finish last season. It's working. During a 17-of-18 spurt and sustained success leading to the All-Star break, all of it came to fruition.

Of course, it took an 18-28 start, during which various hitters and bullpen pitchers had horrendous slumps and numerous games were lost because of poor execution. It also took the Rockies replacing manager Clint Hurdle with Jim Tracy.

The Rockies' starters are efficient, going deep into games. At times when the offense isn't producing, they are executing well enough to give Colorado a chance late. In the bullpen, closer Huston Street has been especially effective.

"What you see is a lot of the things you saw us doing in Spring Training," Tracy said. "I am a big believer that the big things, they're going to happen -- the home runs, the big at-bats.

"But what can be the difference-maker on days that those things aren't happening are a ball in the dirt, getting a bunt down, the unselfishness to give he best swing you've got in a hit-and-run situation. It's not asked of you a lot, but when it is, the unselfish part of you, the teammate part of you, has to come out. And if you look at what's taken place since the 29th of May [when he took the job] it emulates exactly what I'm saying."

Club MVP: Even when the Rockies struggled at the start of the season, right fielder Brad Hawpe was providing clutch hitting and run production. He continued those traits when the team turned hot, and has shown no signs of a downturn. That's why he was selected for the All-Star Game for the first time. Veteran first baseman Todd Helton has had a similar season and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the young leader, has set a strong example since shedding his early-season difficulties.

Call him "Ace": Right-hander Jason Marquis spent his career as a back-of-the rotation pitcher who had to fight for jobs and sometimes was left off playoff rosters. The Rockies acquired him from the Cubs and immediately treated him as a veteran leader. The result was clutch pitching. He won seven times after Rockies losses, and has the team's only two wins against the Dodgers.

Greatest strength: Who would have ever thought that starting pitching would be considered the calling card of a team that plays at Coors Field? But Marquis, No. 1 pitcher Aaron Cook and budding star Ubaldo Jimenez are formidable. The back of the rotation -- Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa -- caught fire during the team's surge.

Biggest problem: The bullpen got off to a rough start, but has made dramatic improvement. Glendon Rusch, Matt Belisle, Jason Grilli and Randy Flores have come and gone. The team has received a lift from in-season additions Josh Fogg, Joel Peralta, Matt Daley and Juan Rincon.

But with Taylor Buchholz out for the season with elbow surgery and Manuel Corpas hoping to pitch through floating bone chips, the bullpen still needs help. Talented lefty prospect Franklin Morales could be part of the answer, and a return to good health by Corpas could help. But this is the area the team could improve most with the right deal.

Biggest surprise: Through May 28, Clint Barmes had been batting at various spots in the order and owned a .234 batting average and a .303 on-base percentage. Immediately after taking over as manager, Tracy installed Barmes as his No. 2 hitter. The result is Barmes, knowing Helton is hitting behind him, has hit better than .300.

Team needs: The lineup is not perfect, partly because Tracy has committed to being patient with the ups and downs of rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler and youthful third baseman Ian Stewart and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.

Could the Rockies use a Marquis-esque presence in the rotation? The questions at this time of year are whether a veteran acquisition make the adjustments needed to function at Coors, would the acquisition be worth pushing talented young hurlers like Hammel and De La Rosa to the bullpen, and is the price right? The Rockies received Marquis from the Cubs for declining reliever Luis Vizcaino. Such a deal now may cost a top prospect.

The bullpen looks like the best area to shore up. Third baseman Garrett Atkins, who began producing closer to the break, and outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, a sparkplug in various roles, are top candidates from the Major League roster for a deal. Triple-A Colorado Springs second baseman Eric Young Jr. and a number of Minor League pitchers could be coveted.

He said it: I was sitting with one of my former players, Robin Ventura, one day and he talked about the fact, 'You know something, Trace? Over the course of a championship season, all 30 teams will step in a hole. The teams that will end up standing when we get to the third or fourth of October and get to play in the big tournament at the end of the year have some ability and figure out sooner than others how to get out of the hole they just stepped in.

When that situation arises, I will address it. And as quickly as it developed, we'll get closure just that quickly. -- Tracy

Mark your calendar: The Rockies play host to the Giants for three games July 24-26 and meet them at AT&T Park Aug. 28-30. The Rockies play host to the Dodgers Aug. 25-27 and finish the season at Dodger Stadium Oct. 2-4.

Fearless second-half prediction: The division race will become a jumbled mess at some point late, but the Rockies will be in the thick of it. Don't be surprised to see a repeat of 2007, as in the Rockies participating in a 163rd game to see who goes to the playoffs.

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

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