You know the saying about hope in one hand, “something else” in the other, and see which hand fills up first? With the Rockies, it’s always the hope hand.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to be hopeful about a season that finds them 11 games under .500 and 11 games behind the Wild Card pace, and in fourth place 24 games behind the division-leading Giants with 37 games to play entering Wednesday. For comparison, on this day in 2007 — the year of their Rocktober run to the World Series — they were two games over .500, 6 ½ games back in the division, and — you guessed it — in fourth place.
But if you only watch the Rockies at Coors Field, you see a contending-caliber team. They recently swept the Padres and took two-of-three from Arizona, while giving fans two more exciting walk-off wins to add to their ever-growing franchise record of 12.
And perhaps best of all, many of the highlights are being supplied by young players who should have years to contribute in Colorado before outgrowing the Rockies’ purse strings.
Friday night it was Brendan Rodgers, the Rockies No. 1 draft pick in 2015 (third overall) whose first full season has been postponed multiple times due to injuries and pandemics. Since Spring Training, he’s established himself as one of the most consistent hitters on the team, currently hitting .283 — .297 at home and .267 on the road. But Friday his glove and his arm were the stars, making a handful of highlight plays that shone a light on what used to be the most important characteristic for a middle infielder — his finesse in the field.
“Defensively, it's one of my better games,” Rodgers told the Daily Planet after the game, reflecting on a pair of run-saving plays, including a diving, inning-ending snare that kept two runs from entering the books, and a perfect relay from right to nail another run a nanosecond before crossing home. “I'm glad we got the win, and I just love action. I've always thought I could play pretty solid defense up the middle. That's what I'm out there to prove pretty much every day, to show that I can make the routine play, but I can also make the tough plays.”
A natural shortstop, he started 2020 on the injured list, with, Ryan McMahon at second and Johsua Fuentes on third, but he’s been the Rockies primary second baseman since being activated in May and is the heir apparent at short, should Trevor Story leave via free agency. For him to shine defensively and develop an appetite for gobbling grounders is a good sign for the future.
“I'm just trying to go out there and have fun,” Rodgers said. “It's always fun to make those tough plays. You don't get them very often, but when you can show up and make those tough plays, man, it brings some eyes.”
Attracting “eyes” hasn’t been the stated goal for too many Rockies fielders, but it fits with the current crop of upcoming stars of the games, and it beats hoping the ball gets batted elsewhere. Winning Rockies teams have always thrived on defense, and it’s an essential at Coors Field, where every out is sacred.
“A lot of early work goes into it,” Rodgers told the Planet. “Being in the middle with Story, I get a lot of tips, a lot of pointers. We work a lot in Spring Training to get used to each other. It's a lot of communication. A lot of early work. You got to put the time in to be good.”
Bud Black, who is burnishing his reputation as a manager not satisfied with “good enough,” couldn’t keep from emphasizing the importance of Rodgers embracing the challenges of the field.
“All the great defenders that I've played with as a player, coached or managed wanted to defend,” Black said. “They took pride in the everyday aspect of defense. It starts with a mindset that you want to be a defender you want to be a complete player.
“There's a lot that goes into it. First and foremost, hard work and repetitions with our coaches on all different sorts of plays. There's an instinct to it, which I think Brendan has. There's a scouting report component, the pre-series meetings when you talk defense, positioning, reading. But plain and simple it's a mindset, it's a mentality, and a desire to want to defend.”
On the flip side of that equation, the Rockies got big swings of the bat from a couple players who are typically thought of for their fielding first — super-utility player Garrett Hampson and catcher Elias Diaz. Hampson, who has played center, second, short and third for the Rockies this year, came in as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of a game against the D-backs with the Rockies trailing 2-0. He hit the first pitch he saw over the center field fence to tie the game and set up Diaz’s three-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth for the 12th last-swing win of the season.
“I just tried to take the at bat as you would if you've been playing all game,” Hampson told the Planet of his second pinch-hit homer of the season. “It's not easy to do coming off the bench like that, but I don't really focus on too much of a difference or trying to hype myself up any more than I would if I started. I don’t think I've tried to change, but you definitely want to come through in those spots. It's awesome to come off the bench and help your team when you don't know when it's gonna be. It's pretty exciting to come in in a good spot and come through.”
Diaz had to be more patient in his moment, working a 10-pitch at bat, going from 0-2 to a full count and fouling off six pitches before sending one over the fence for his third walk-off hit of the year — two of them homers.
“I wanted to continue to fight. I don't want him to beat me in that situation. He ended up hanging the slider and I get it out,” Diaz said through an interpreter. “As a baseball player, those situations come up often and you want to be a part of that as much as possible. When you get the opportunity and you come through for the team, it just gives you an extra feeling of confidence, excitement.”
Perhaps the best reason for hope was the first game in Chicago after leaving the mile-high magic in the rearview mirror. The Rockies put up three runs in the first frame and held the lead until venerable veteran Jhoulys Chacin walked three batters on 12 straight balls, an aberration in his solid season, setting up the Cubs’ own walk-off win.
“We were a little quiet against (Kyle) Hendricks after the first, which I think was frustrating for the guys,” Black said of the Cubs starter who notched his 14th win of the season. “We showed a pretty good attack plan in the first at bats, and then the second at bats, that sort of got away from us. But it was encouraging to come out for sure and jump on the league leader in wins with three in the first.”
The second best reason to hope? Rain in Wrigley meant no woes Tuesday, and a chance to play two as the series wrapped Wednesday.
Editor’s note: For full coverage of the Rockies series in Chicago, see Sunday’s Daily Planet.