We're talking about this week's showdown in Colorado between two of the three best teams in the National League — and one budding rivalry.
Alike in some ways, so different in others, the Giants and Rockies will play 15 more times this season — and it should surprise nobody if a division title and a wild-card spot are on the line during their seven late-September games.
There is no Giants-Dodgers, deep-rooted dislike that goes back more than a century here. No, Giants-Rockies goes back only 18 years. The biggest bone of contention between the two franchises occurred only last season, when the Giants formally lodged a complaint about the practices surrounding the transfer of baseballs from the Coors Field humidor to the playing field.
MLB thought enough of the complaint to slightly alter the guidelines, making things more-transparent — and theoretically eliminate the possibility of teams hitting different baseballs.
The irony here is that the Rockies consider their character above reproach.
There is a faith-based culture running through the organization, and sadly, the final day of the Giants series marked the one-year anniversary of the death of club president Keli McGregor, one of the biggest forces behind that culture.
The Rockies place so much value on a prospect's character, it's as if that is the sixth tool in their scouts' evaluation process. Their three All-Stars — Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez — are accommodating to the point of being polite. And manager Jim Tracy's gentle, home-spun, verbose ways are out-of-the-ordinary enough that they are respectfully mimicked.
The Giants, meanwhile, don't mind the odd-ball or on-the-edge personality (and there are a handful on their current roster), and have done little over the years to curb a star mentality in their clubhouse. Cooperation with media can be optional, and manager Bruce Bochy is old-school enough to believe the clubhouse should police itself.
The other factor in play here is that last Sept. 18, the Giants were 83-66 — one-half game ahead of the 82-66 Rockies. From that point, the Giants went 9-4 and edged out the San Diego Padres for the division title, and we know that happened after that.
Three games in mid-April can only carry so much weight and long-term implication, but here's what the Giants' two-of-three series win this week revealed:
Stewart, facing a watershed season at 26, hasn't been able to lock in his swing after missing much of spring training due to knee and hamstring injuries, and a battle with flu-like symptoms.
Tracy has been juggling Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez — two right-handed bats signed as free agents — as Jonathan Herrera has grabbed regular playing time at second base with a very-hot start.
The current thought process has Stewart returning soon to a regular spot somewhere in the 5-7 holes in the batting order. But with Wigginton and Lopez also off to slow offensive starts, there is at least an opening for a Chris Nelson to emerge, if he is recalled from Triple-A Colorado Springs.
"This car is not firing on all eight cylinders yet,'' Tracy said during the series. "I can promise you that.''
Before Cody Ross got hurt in spring training, the Giants were leaning to starting Belt at Triple-A Fresno. Belt's hot spring altered the plan, but NL pitchers changed it again, as Belt (.192 batting average, .269 slugging percentage) was limited to two extra-base hits in 52 at-bats before being sent down on his 24th birthday to make room for Ross' return.
"Last year was Belt's first full season in pro ball, and he only spent a short time at Triple-A,'' said an NL scout following the Giants. "He's going to be a very good player, but it's a stretch to put him in the middle of a big-league lineup at this point.''
Speedy center fielder Darren Ford also was recalled to replace disabled Andres Torres, and Bochy made use of Ford, Ross and Nate Schierholz in the spacious Coors Field outfield, rather than overexpose Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff, the latter of whom returned to first base in the series finale.
So as Bochy mix and matches on a daily basis, the Giants remain much the same offensively as they were down the stretch last season — that is to say, middle-of-the-NL pack, and needing the long ball and the clutch hit to win. Through Thursday, they were seventh in the NL in runs, second in homers, fifth in slugging percentage, and 10th in batting average and on-base percentage.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
The Rockies are at the opposite end of the shortstop spectrum, of course. Nobody in the majors has hit more home runs since last Sept. 1 than Tulowitzki, and when you throw in the fact that he plays Gold Glove-caliber defense, and readily accepts the role of team leader and spokesman, it's hard to find a more-legit MVP candidate out there.
Tulowitzki protects fellow possible MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez in the order, but considering the No. 5 spot behind Tulowitzki has been a grab-bag of mostly Todd Helton, but also Seth Smith, Jason Giambi and Lopez, you wonder when teams will stop letting Tulowitzki beat them, and make the others do so.
But even with very little production from the third-base platoon, and pedestrian early numbers from Gonzalez, the Rockies are third in the NL in runs, second in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage.
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The under-the-radar improvement lies in the right-handed side of the Rockies bullpen — healthy-for-now closer Huston Street, Rafael Betancourt (8th inning), Matt Lindstrom (2nd closer/7th inning), Matt Belisle (7th inning) and hard-thrower Felipe Paulino (long man/6th inning).
In fact, Rockies relievers sat fourth among NL bullpens in ERA through Wednesday — a half-run lower than the Giants' pen, which widely is regarded as the league's best. The key to the division-title race likely will be how close the Rockies can come to matching the Giants' dominant first four starting pitchers.
Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez predictably was rusty in his return from the DL in Tuesday's loss. But the thumb cuticle problem shouldn't linger, and his spring was excellent, so his dominance should return. The other good news for the Rockies is Jhoulys Chacin appears ready to take that step up to No. 2-starter status.
HBT: Carlos Ruiz was lifted from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Reds after straining his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the second inning.
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