By Ralph Routon
As a Little League outfielder at age 11, I remembered (and still do) every piece of advice from our team's respected veteran coach, Bob Westbrook, whose team had won many championships. Two of his earliest lessons involved sliding: Don't ever slide into first base to beat a throw, because it actually slows you down. And try never to slide head-first anywhere, but if you do, be sure to squeeze that outstretched hand into a fist to avoid injury.
Apparently, nobody like Coach Westbrook ever preached that sermon to the Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado. When the 23-year-old third baseman lined a shot to left field last weekend in Atlanta, it was no surprise that he went for second base. But when the throw came, Arenado slid head-first — and his outstretched left hand jammed into the bag, fracturing that middle finger.
Not even 50 games into the long season, it seemed so unnecessary to push the odds that way. Especially for Arenado, who was on his way toward a likely trip to the All-Star Game, batting over .300 after a recent club-record, 28-game hitting streak, with more extra-base hits (23, including 17 doubles and six homers) than any other major-league third baseman. And that doesn't account for his phenomenal defense, even better than he showed winning a Gold Glove as a rookie in 2013.
Now, though, Arenado will be lost for at least a month, perhaps until after the All-Star break. And in the two games immediately after losing their young standout, the Rockies previewed the two options facing them now.
They could hold it together somehow, as they did in a 3-1 victory over Atlanta last Saturday, and remain in the National League West hunt. Or, after two months as one of baseball's most pleasant surprises in 2014, they could fade quickly back to mediocrity, as seemed likely in their meek 7-0 shutout loss Sunday to the Braves.
Manager Walt Weiss has done a remarkable job transforming a last-place team into a potential contender, despite losing rightfielder Michael Cuddyer (hamstring) and catcher Wilin Rosario (illness, then hand) for extended stretches, plus starting pitchers Brett Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood. Add in the fact that starter Franklin Morales has gone downhill (he gave up three homers in that loss Sunday), plus the bullpen being less consistent than hoped, and you wonder how the Rockies made it into Memorial Day above the .500 mark at 27-23.
They did that because of superb defense, particularly from Arenado and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, bailing out the pitchers time after time. Because of first baseman Justin Morneau, who has made the transition beyond Todd Helton's retirement far less painful than feared with a solid bat and dependable glove. And because at least two pitchers who figured to be at the bottom of the rotation (or out), Juan Nicasio and Jordan Lyles, have been the team's best starters.
But can that patchwork roster continue to produce on the road this week, then through a rugged June stretch of 13 games, including six against the Los Angeles Dodgers, three against San Francisco and four more against Atlanta?
That's a lot to ask, probably too much. And that's why the clamor has been rising for the Rockies to consider giving a shot to some of their hot minor-league pitchers, such as Christian Bergman in Colorado Springs or two promising projects at Double-A Tulsa, Eddie Butler and Jon Gray. Any of them could come up for a spot start, if not longer, with no harm done if they struggle and need to go back down.
If one or two of them could deliver for the Rockies, if Lyles and Nicasio can hang on until others come around, and if Weiss can hold the defense together until Arenado returns, this still could be an even more interesting late summer.
Otherwise, an 81-81 finish still should be Colorado's realistic goal, and that would bode well for years to come.