Baseball fans know better than to feel too high or low, regardless of how the standings look. Especially at this time of year, any major-league team might be no more than one streaky week from first or last place.
So it made total sense last weekend when a cautious Colorado Rockies fan shook hands, looked at me with a nervous grin and said, "So, do you believe in the Rockies yet?"
They're on a pace to win 96 or so games, which almost certainly would be enough for Colorado's first-ever National League West Division title. They won nine of their first 12 road games, clearly the most encouraging sign during an April filled with positive accomplishments. They have a swagger, a confident demeanor, that's far more noticeable than in recent years, except for the late-season runs that took them into the 2007 and 2009 playoffs.
Yet the question wasn't about what team Colorado would face in the World Series. Just a simple, "Do you believe yet?"
The questioner clearly was expecting, perhaps even bracing for, a skeptical reply. So he couldn't hide his shock at my reply: "Actually, yes."
This does not mean I'm predicting the Rockies to rule the National League. But they're good enough to be contenders. Good enough to win the division.
And here are the main reasons why:
• They've started amazingly fast, entering this week at 14-7, despite not having won a single game that Ubaldo Jiménez has started. Think about that. Unless Jiménez pitches well enough at home Saturday that Colorado can defeat Pittsburgh, April will end with the Rockies at 0-4 in games that their All-Star pitcher has started.
• With the staff ace struggling, the other starters have more than made up the difference. Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin have been superb, while Jason Hammel has looked fully capable of handling the No. 4 spot. Esmil Rogers has been inconsistent, but still promising. Assuming that Jiménez will come around soon, that's shaping up to be an even better group than in 2009, when all five starters had at least 10 wins.
• The bullpen has provided sterling support, not just Huston Street in the closer role but others such as Matt Lindstrom, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Reynolds, Matt Belisle and even Clayton Mortensen. Lindstrom in particular has shown he can step in whenever Street needs a break, with excellent velocity in the mid-90s.
• John Herrera. It was evident in spring training that the Rockies' brain trust wanted Jose Lopez to be the regular second baseman, and Lopez was the Opening Day starter. But given chances, Herrera has won the job, providing a steady bat (.327 average, .464 on-base percentage) with near-spotless (just one error so far) defense and even a team-high four steals as of Monday.
What about the concerns? There are some, and they need to be rectified.
Ty Wigginton has taken over at third base after Ian Stewart's disastrous start, but Wigginton himself is fighting to stay above .200. Stewart has been sent down to Colorado Springs with the hope that he can rediscover his stroke. Lopez has been able to share time with Wigginton, thanks to Herrera playing so well, but at some point that equation will have to change.
Carlos Gonzalez has started slowly at the plate, perhaps having a tougher time than others adjusting to new hitting coach Carney Lansford. Nobody is panicking, in part because CarGo should go on a tear at any moment, and also because shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has carried the Rockies through April. But if Gonzalez doesn't wake up in May, that amazing year in 2010 will be soon forgotten.
Then there's Jason Giambi, with exactly three hits in 18 at-bats for a paltry .167 average coming into this week. With Wigginton forced to play third base, that means Giambi covers for first baseman Todd Helton's off days. So far, the dropoff on offense and especially defense with Helton on the bench has become more and more glaring.
So it's not as though the Rockies are doing everything right. They're living so far on pitching and Tulo, hoping the rest will come around.
That's still enough to believe 2011 will be an interesting year.
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