The U-Ball Express reaches 13

By Dave Kreiger
Updated: June 18, 2010

Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez (right) is now 13-1

Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez (right) is now 13-1

DENVER — The U-ball express rolls on, making history at every stop and almost but not quite — masking one of baseball’s most disappointing offenses.

Ubaldo Jimenez followed yet another Rockies loss with a win Thursday. That makes them 13-1 when Jimenez pitches and 21-31 when he doesn’t.

This is not a comment on the rest of the pitching staff, which has weathered injuries to three starters and a closer and still kept the Rockies in most games. Three starters other than Jimenez — Jeff Francis, Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin — have ERAs of 4.00 or less.

No, the Rockies’ mediocrity in the standings is a comment on an underachieving lineup that keeps doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.

Even Jim Tracy has stopped making excuses for it.

“We missed the ball, that’s all I can tell you,” a subdued Tracy said Wednesday after the Rocks struck out 13 times in a 2-1 loss at Minnesota, 12 of those whiffs coming against Scott Baker, who had fanned two Kansas City Royals in his previous outing.

The Rockies’ party line for much of the season has been to credit the opposing pitcher and offer assurances that the offense will come around eventually. But hitting coach Don Baylor acknowledged that Baker’s awesomeness was not entirely responsible for Wednesday’s helplessness at the plate.

“He was throwing 89, 90, 91,” Baylor told FSN after the game. “We just didn’t do a good job of making contact.”

Ah, making contact. What a quaint concept. You don’t hear much about it anymore. Where have you gone, Rod Carew? How about choking up? When was the last time you heard that expression, not including interviews with Dick Vermeil?

Here’s the Rocks’ quintessential at-bat of the season. It’s too bad Carlos Gonzalez was at the plate because he’s been their best run producer, leading them in RBIs mostly from the leadoff spot. Still, this particular at-bat typified the Rocks to date.

It was the eighth inning Wednesday night in Minnesota. Chacin had been in constant trouble but kept wriggling out, keeping his team in the game. Down 2-0, Seth Smith led off the eighth with a double. Chris Iannetta was hit by a pitch. Clint Barmes bunted them over, putting the tying runs on second and third with one out.

Smith scored and Iannetta advanced to third on a gift, a Joe Mauer passed ball. With the tying run 90 feet away and one out, the Twins brought their infield in.

If Gonzalez does almost anything except strike out or pop up, that run is coming home. Gonzalez took a big, beautiful swing and hit a foul popup to third. Todd Helton struck out.

Neither so much as put the ball in play.

The Rockies take a lot of big, beautiful swings with big, beautiful follow-throughs. That’s their only mode. They never seem to cut down their swings and try to put the ball in play, even if that’s what the situation calls for.

I presume this is a product of the video machine. Hitters watch themselves a lot these days. They’re always trying to replicate the perfect swing path, the one responsible for that 420-foot home run two weeks ago. Many swings these days are as pretty as golf swings, and nearly as long.

When I asked general manager Dan O’Dowd a month ago about his team’s affection for the big swing, he said it needed to make better two-strike adjustments. I would add situational adjustments before two strikes.

The biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s is hitting when the game is on the line. This year’s Rocks are last in the National League in batting from the seventh inning on, at .205.

Last year, they finished fourth, at .257.

For two months, they have taken comfort in last year’s slow start.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Tracy was citing his club’s 20-32 record a year earlier and pointing out that that team made the playoffs.

The day Tracy picked was last year’s low point. The 2009 Rocks won 17 of 18 from there. Over the past two weeks, that team has pulled to within one game of this one. And that team won its next four to finish up the streak.

This year’s club flew home Thursday with none of that one’s momentum.

Let’s face it: The Rocks are in danger of wasting the best pitcher in baseball. Either they start making adjustments at the plate or the front office will have to start making adjustments to the mix.