The Waiting Game

For the Rockies, August can be the cruelest month.

For Denny Neagle, of course, there will be no wire. On July 30, the $9 million-per-year Rockies starter underwent ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow -- the kind of surgery that ends pitching careers and will almost certainly signal a finish to the most reckless spending spree in club history. After the 2000 season, Colorado signed Neagle and lefty Mike Hampton to a pair of multi-year contracts worth nearly $175 million. Three years later, Hampton is with the super-hot Braves, and Neagle could be finished forever -- an omen even the most optimistic Rockie cannot ignore. Forget the blown umpire's call that may have cost the Rockies a game on August 2, or even that horrifying escalator accident that injured 35 fans at Coors Field exactly a month earlier. Neagle's injury comes down on the team with the force of a voodoo curse: Hurdle now has no starting pitcher older than 28, and half of them have spent time on the disabled list this season. When they weren't searching for their stuff, that is. After young Aaron Cook started the year 2-6, he was sent down to Colorado Springs and now finds himself in the Rockies bullpen. Meanwhile, reliever Jose Jimenez has twenty saves, but he's also lost twelve straight decisions -- six of them this year. Because of a bad shoulder, the 11-4 phenom of 2002, Denny Stark, spent more than three months on the DL.

Still, Colorado already boasts three ten-game winners this year -- Chacon, Jason Jennings and Darren Oliver -- for just the second time in its history, and the club has baseball's top RBI producer, ex-Florida Marlin Preston Wilson, with 112. Walker has endured his usual plague of injuries, but first baseman Todd Helton motors on, despite a sore back, as one of the game's top sluggers. Who else but the mild-mannered Helton would keep a stack of sixteen bats at his locker -- old bats and new, haunted bats and lucky ones. With solid Charles Johnson now behind the plate, speedy Jay Payton in left field and two sure-handed infielders, Chris Stynes at third and Juan Uribe at short, the Rockies look more talented than ever -- at least if you can imagine the future. Meanwhile, the phenom of the moment, Taiwanese right-hander Chin-Hui Tsao, is a perfect 2-0 following his recovery from reconstructive elbow surgery in May 2001. On August 6, the 22-year-old three-hit the Phillies in an impressive 5-1 win, looking every bit the real thing.

So along with the bad omens, we now see some good ones -- and if they don't pay dividends until next season, or the season after that, at least general manager Dan O'Dowd may have set aside the buying-and-trading frenzies of the past three years for something more valuable: consistency, heart and stability.

Certainly, those are the things Clint Hurdle was searching for as he surveyed his bruised and battered club. "What winning teams do," he said, "is get guys on base and then get 'em in. Good teams pitch well, and they're disciplined. They come out in a good frame of mind -- hungry and mean -- and they play good baseball throughout the season. That's the challenge in front of us."

In all likelihood, though, the optimists will have to wait until next year.

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