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The Future Is Now
Rockies can't wait til next season

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Neifi Perez may run away with a Gold Glove as the leagues best defensive short stop - JAMES MCVEY
  • James McVey
  • Neifi Perez may run away with a Gold Glove as the leagues best defensive short stop

The scattered empty seats in Coors Field have turned to entire empty sections, and the big-bang dependency on three-run home runs has been replaced by a cagey approach to manufacturing runs and having sluggers steal home. In other words, the Rockies are getting real.

Having limped home to secure their best finish in three years, there is plenty of promise on the Rockies horizon. Their new game plan gave them a clearly improved approach to Coors Field, rewriting the mythos of the park and making off-season improvement seem elementary as Dan O'Dowd heads into what could be another feeding frenzy.

The most promisng thing about the future is the blossoming success of the Rockies organizational development. The Sky Sox reversed their trend and finished with a winning season, and the parent club is trying to do the same, largely behind the performance of a core of players raised as Rockies. Home-grown Todd Helton has sewn up the team's third straight individual batting title Neifi Perez is a favorite to win a Gold Glove at shortstop on a team with the best defense in the league. Ben Petrick's two partial seasons as a .325 hitter would add up to Rookie of the Year credentials if his efforts were compacted into one season, and Juan Pierre's .315 mini-season represents another Rookie of the Year caliber player from the Rockies organization.

Let's hope it's more than mere coincidence that these home-grown stars happen to lead the team, if not the league, in batting against the untouchable Randy Johnson. Perez hits him at .359, and hit his third homer off the reigning Cy Young winner Monday night. "Just a lucky day for me," the switch-hitting Perez told the Indy after the tough defeat. "I'm just a better hitter from the right side."

Perez cites his batting average as the part of his game he's most proud of this season. "I just want to put my bat on the same level that I have my glove," he said, firmly entrenched in the .290s. His glove has been golden, but Perez isn't clearing a spot on the mantle yet. "[A Gold Glove] is one of my goals. I have to keep working hard, because there's a lot of good shortstops in the National League: Barry Larkin, Ray Ordonoz. When I've got it in my hand, then I'm sure that I've got it."

Petrick handles Johnson at a .429 pace. "I like a challenge, knowing that I'm facing one of the top pitchers in the league. I have nothing to lose really. He's the veteran, the star, and I'm just trying to do some damage."

Petrick's bat has been doing damage since his first call-up from the Sky Sox last season, and his defense has improved enough to make him a legitimate challenger to Brent Mayne's starting job behind the plate. "I'm pretty happy with the way the year has gone," Petrick told the Indy. "I've had my ups and downs no doubt this year. I'm trying to improve myself defensively a lot. I still haven't got to where I think I can get. I'm going to bust my butt for six more days and see if we can't win a few more ballgames and at least finish above .500."

And it only gets better. Pierre, the only lefty in the lineup, went 3 for 4 against the Big Unit in his first game against him, speeding his way on base with infield singles and drives to left and center. "I'm not a muscle kind of guy, so I don't even try to change my swing to hit for more power. I try to keep the same swing. I think that benefited me against Randy Johnson. I was just trying to hit the ball hard, low line drives, hard ground balls. If he got me out, he's supposed to get me out."

Perhaps the most significant change this season has been a much improved pitching staff, but don't look for the Rockies to be lulled into complacency by a staff that is still coming up short. After a '99 season in which only two pitchers won 10 games or more, the Rockies yielded four 10-game winnners this year in Pedro Astacio, Brian Bohanon, Julian Tavarez, and Gabe White. Bohanon is sandwiched between Johnson and Greg Maddux for the lowest road ERA in the league, Astacio is sixth in the league with 193 strikeouts, and Tavarez posted a league high winning streak of nine games this summer.

With a bullpen developing rock-solid credentials behind White, Mike Myers, new closer Jose Jimenez, and the one-inning wonder, Brent Mayne, games have slowly approached conventional parameters, without turning the late innings into the slugfests that defined the franchise throughout most of its history. The key to next season is to keep from denying that the team is still two legitimate starters away from serious contention, Masato Yoshii's good pitching and bad luck notwithstanding.

The rest of the lineup is mostly mere all-star material. Jeff Cirillo stepped in to be a steady .320 hitter with strong defense and leadership qualities. Jeffrey Hammonds had a career year, playing with only a trace of the vulnerability to injuries that have kept him down in past years. And although oft-injured Larry Walker's 87 games were the fewest of his career except for '96, the Rockies can note that he rebounded in '97 to play a career high 153 games and win the MVP.

Wait 'til next year? Bring on the spring! After too many seasons on the rocks, everything's coming up Rockie.

-- owen@csindy.com

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