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Hovering on the Verge 

The Rockies use grit and grind to stay within striking distance

click to enlarge Denny Neagle giving it his all - DARRALD BENNETT

This may not be Denny Neagle's year to be the Rockies' No. 1 ace. When the Morrison, Colorado resident signed with the team in the wake of winning a World Series ring with the Yankees last season, his homecoming was quickly overshadowed by the subsequent signing of Mike Hampton, whose phenomenal spring has been one of the best in baseball.

But Hampton is the exception. He is that rarest of breeds in Colorado, the indomitable ace, bewildering batters in every outing and challenging his teammates to simply connect the dots for a victory. Neagle's starts are more of the gritty kind, emblematic of a team that is defining itself by its resilience and its ability to grind out its wins the hard way.

In his last Coors Field start, Neagle threw 108 pitches in five innings, setting the team up for victory without sticking around long enough to get credit for it. A pitch count like that should get you to the seventh or eighth inning, but Neagle's stuff was missing against the Dodgers that night.

"It wasn't pretty, but, hey, I kept us in the game, gave us a chance to win," Neagle said after the game. "Sometimes that's all you can ask." Neagle's quality, three-run outing was the result of some creative, intelligent pitching, making up in craftiness what may have been missing on the radar gun.

"I'm not the kind of guy that can reach back and try to throw it by these guys," Neagle explained to the Indy, noting that his trouble came when he tried to get his 83 mph fastball past hitters. "I got in the habit tonight of trying to throw too many fastballs by guys and too many hard cutters in on them. The cutter's been a good pitch for me, but sometimes I'm starting to fall in love with it, and I'm getting away from sinking it and changing the speeds on them a little bit."

The series against the Dodgers signaled the beginning of a tell-all stretch of two straight weeks against their divisional foes of L.A. and San Francisco, to be followed shortly by a similar stretch against rivals San Diego and Arizona. With the return of the unbalanced schedule, teams play more games within their division than against the rest of the league, making these head-to-head matches crucial in early positioning for the pennant race.

In every division but the National League West, one team has staked their turf out by posting a dominating record within their division. No one is running away winning the West, however. All five teams are scrapping it out, winning some, losing some, and keeping the division tight and highly competitive, with all teams playing .500 or better and no more than three games separating first and last place.

"These next couple weeks are really important," Neagle admitted. "You never want to talk about games being this important early in the season, but the way the schedule's set up now with the unbalanced schedule and playing all the teams in our own division, you want to take advantage of it. When you play this many teams in your own division, you're either going to fall way back in the standings or help yourself out a lot. So this is the time to start kicking into gear and playing good baseball."

So far, the Rockies are surprising no one with their respectable .500 record, their league-leading hitting, or the fact that they are last in the standings in the division. Close observers are poised for movement, however, sensing the team on the verge of putting it all together. For once, their pitching is not the worst in the league, no longer neutralizing their excellent offensive play. Match these two components with the best defense in the division, and the Rockies could be the sleepers of the West.

"Winning streaks are created by doing the little things," Neagle points out, and whether it's Larry Walker throwing out runners, Ron Gant cutting extra base hits down to singles, Gold Glover Neifi Perez initiating double plays, or Todd Helton make diving catches to protect the first-base line, the Rockies are getting their uniforms dirty and doing what it takes. They show no signs of being satisfied to sit tight at .500.

"We're much better than that," Neagle proclaims. "We know that. We have way too good of a team to be hovering around .500 like this. I'm not saying all of a sudden we should be jumping up 20 games over .500. But we should start being able to put together five-, six-, seven-game winning streaks now instead of hovering around a couple games over, couple games under. We need to put one of those good streaks together now."

If the divisional parity holds up, Neagle's preseason prediction about the West being the toughest division in baseball could ring true. His Yanks of last season won 88 games in an extremely tough division, transforming the lowest win total of a division winner into a championship finish. "I think the same thing can be said about the N.L. West this year," Neagle observed. "Somebody just needs to get on that one little roll right there to run away with it, and that's what we're hoping to do."


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