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Rockies' new game-changer 

End Zone

During the Colorado Rockies' second-half collapse last summer, beginning just after the All-Star break and concluding with a painful September swoon, the most convenient explanation was to blame the pitching, both starters and bullpen.

Certainly, the lack of pitching consistency — led by Ubaldo Jiménez's steady fade after such an incredible first half — had much to do with the Rockies' demise, after they had looked so promising from June into early July.

But something else was contributing greatly to Colorado's troubles: The bats went into the tank, especially away from Coors Field, where the Rockies hit a dismal .226 and couldn't score runs.

Somehow, through all that late-season suffering, nobody blamed the one person who arguably was most responsible — hitting coach and former Colorado manager Don Baylor. Perhaps because Baylor is such a good guy, and perhaps because he definitely was successful mentoring young superstar outfielder Carlos Gonzalez as well as shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, nobody turned Baylor into a scapegoat.

One could argue, though, that CarGo and Tulo would have had great years no matter who was the hitting coach. For them, the best coaching strategy was to get out of the way.

For others, though, Baylor had no answers. He couldn't reverse the slide of first baseman Todd Helton, the all-or-nothing frustrations of second baseman Clint Barmes, the backsliding of third baseman Ian Stewart and outfielder Dexter Fowler, the implosion of outfielder Brad Hawpe and the failures of catcher Chris Iannetta. And all that came after the 2009 disintegration and departure of infielder Garrett Atkins, also on Baylor's watch.

It says something about the diplomatic class of Colorado manager Jim Tracy that he very quietly made a change last October. Former major-leaguer Carney Lansford was hired as the Rockies' new hitting coach, and the team actually offered Baylor the chance to remain on staff as a special assistant. But the 61-year-old Baylor said no, instead becoming the Arizona Diamondbacks' hitting coach and continuing his quest to possibly manage again someday.

Lansford, a career .290 hitter in the majors who won the American League batting title in 1981, did not wait around until spring training to start attacking the problems that he inherited. He logged plenty of frequent-flyer miles, visiting Colorado players to talk hitting and spend some time in batting cages, looking at their swings, stances and approaches, then making revisions.

Not surprisingly, Lansford spent considerable time with Stewart and Iannetta, obviously realizing their importance to Colorado's fate in 2011. If the new coach can help those two hit consistently for good average lower in the batting order, that alone could make a huge difference for the entire offense. From early accounts, those two players went to Arizona feeling more confident at the plate than ever before.

The story is similar for Fowler, whose sophomore slump undercut Colorado's plans for stability at the top of the order. And then there's outfielder Seth Smith, who seemed to plateau under Baylor's tutelage.

As for Helton, he's been promising so far after working himself harder in the offseason. If Lansford can help him get off to a decent start, all the better, though one might guess that the new coach will focus more on his younger pupils.

Let's not go too far with this and label Lansford as a miracle worker. He was San Francisco's hitting coach in 2008 and 2009, with the team struggling offensively both years, then after he was fired, the Giants suddenly broke through and won the 2010 World Series.

Different coaches and tactics can work better in new situations, though. From early reports, Lansford's strong work ethic is meshing well with the younger Rockies, who appear to be responding more to a coach pushing them harder (than Baylor did).

The exhibition games start this weekend, and though it's wrong to put too much stock in analyzing March statistics, this time might be an exception for Rockies such as Iannetta, Stewart, Fowler and Smith.

If those four can come along quickly, Colorado might have a chance to pull some surprises this year. Yes, even like San Francisco last year.

routon@csindy.com

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