Rockies poised for ... what? 

End Zone

Hard to believe that, a year ago this week, the Colorado Rockies were mired in frustration and disarray.

After being swept over three ugly nights at Coors Field by the Los Angeles Dodgers (16-6, 7-1 and 8-6), the Rox were 18-28 and a full 14 games behind first-place L.A. in the National League West. The sweet memories of their 2007 National League pennant were gone, and manager Clint Hurdle had used up all the benefit of doubt from that miraculous season.

So the Rockies' front office fired Hurdle, promoted bench coach Jim Tracy to manager and hoped for the best but with modest expectations. Twelve months later, Colorado's record under Tracy of 96-64 entering this week can only be described as phenomenal, though the Rockies' 22-22 start this season is viewed as disappointing.

Look more closely, though, and you have to wonder if the Rox might be on the verge of another red-hot summer — except that, this time, they're around .500 and only about four games out of first place (going into Tuesday night).

It's hard to believe Colorado could've been 22-22, given all the underachieving on the roster. First baseman Todd Helton had just one homer and nine runs batted in. Outfielder Dexter Fowler, after a solid rookie year, was hitting .227 with just four RBIs, second baseman Clint Barmes was batting .220, and outfielder Ryan Spilborghs was struggling at .215. Starting catcher Chris Iannetta lost his starting job and, hitting .133, was sent down to Colorado Springs.

As for pitchers, three members of the season-opening rotation — Aaron Cook (1-3), Greg Smith (1-2) and Jason Hammel (1-3) — were still looking for their second wins, more than 25 percent into the season. Closer Huston Street still hasn't pitched in a single game, replacement Franklin Morales is on the disabled list along with starter Jorge De La Rosa, and setup reliever Matt Daley is gone to the minors.

If Tracy had known all that ahead of time, rest assured he would have taken 22-22 in late May. Especially given that the Rockies look even more capable than a year ago of making a strong run through June and beyond.

The starting pitchers, so solid for the last four months of 2009, have an even better anchor now in Ubaldo Jimenez (8-1), on his way to starting the All-Star Game. Jeff Francis, after a spring-ending setback, has returned with two superb outings that indicate he can be a worthy No. 2 starter. Rookie Jhoulys Chacin, grabbed up from Colorado Springs, has shown much promise with a 2-2 mark and an impressive 3.12 ERA after five starts. Cook hasn't hit his stride yet, but he seems to be coming around, and De La Rosa should be back fairly soon. Street is making rehab appearances this week, as is Morales.

Among the everyday players, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez has locked in from the start, hitting for average (.303) and production (four homers, 28 RBIs), and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has comparable numbers. New catcher Miguel Olivo has been an upgrade with excellent power (eight homers), and third baseman Ian Stewart is on pace for close to 25 homers and 100 RBIs. So if Helton comes around, or if Jason Giambi goes on a tear (he's showing signs of that), and if others like Brad Hawpe and Seth Smith can remain steady, the offense should begin producing more runs. Barmes also should be feeling more pressure now, as the Rockies picked up one of their 2007 heroes, Kaz Matsui, after he was cut by Houston, and he'll be at Colorado Springs in the meantime.

The biggest key, though, has to be the pitching equation. After a strong start, the bullpen has been shaky in recent weeks, blowing leads and turning some close games into blowout losses. That has to improve soon, but nothing helps a relief corps like a stable rotation of starters repeatedly six or more innings.

Still, if you're a Rockies fan and you can remember 52 weeks ago, you have to figure this Colorado team has a much better chance to make a run at the franchise's first division title.

And with 19 out of 28 games at home between May 25 and June 24, the next month should tell us whether this might become another summer to remember.



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