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Paul Klee: Colorado Rockies need Carlos Gonzalez to push them across finish line and into playoffs

By: Paul Klee
August 20, 2017 Updated: August 21, 2017 at 8:07 am
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Colorado Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez looks on during a tribute to former manager Don Baylor during the seventh inning stretch in a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DENVER — This is what you wanted. Unless you hate the Rockies — which is like hating puppies, nachos or the Great Solar Eclipse — it’s what everyone around here wanted.

It’s late August, and the Rockies are in a playoff chase. They are smack dab in the thick of one of the best events in sports. They are not gone, or forgotten. They are 2.5 games up in the Wild Card standings, a spot 11 other teams would like to be in, especially the San Francisco Giants, who on Sunday were eliminated from the National League West. This is what you wanted.

It’s been so long — eight years, almost three more than the average MLB career — that it seemed worth asking: What are the Rockies feeling as they inch to the finish? Pressure, anxiety or flat-out fun?

“It’s fun, man. This is what we work for,” Carlos Gonzalez told me Sunday as he ripped piles and piles of athletic tape from his wrists, elbows and hands. “It’s way more fun when it’s electric and you have a lot of fans. The past — I don’t know how many years, but since I’ve been here — people are already switching to orange because they want to watch the Broncos.

"It’s fun to play for something. We’re trying to get to the playoffs. We’re trying to win a championship.”

See, they can say things like that and, if you close your eyes and pretend the Dodgers were swallowed by the eclipse, not laugh. The Rockies lost again Sunday, 8-4 to the Brewers at Coors Field, and so it might seem necessary to stifle a laugh. The Rox aren’t playing well. They are fumbling balls they usually eat up, like Kyle Freeland with an error in the fifth, Alexi Amarista in the ninth. “Uncharacteristic,” manager Bud Black said. They are leaving runners in scoring position in scoring position — 0-for-11 entering the ninth. They aren’t closing out opponents, like another eclipse who turned out the lights, Greg Holland, who’s 0-3 with a 18.69 ERA since Aug. 6. In the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, Coors was so quiet you could hear an eclipse. Only 27 people remained in the Rockpile at game’s end. The Rox hit one thing, at least — the 4-hour mark, for the first time this season — but not enough baseballs. 

Mostly, there are too many moons on the scorecard. August was supposed to be the easy month, a time for cruise control, with six series against teams below .500. But if you remove the 17-run game against the Braves, an outlier, the Rox are averaging 3.9 runs per game in August. The measly sum would rank 29th in MLB this year. “That’s gotta change,” Black said.

Reading up on the Great Solar Eclipse, I learned the corona is not a cerveza. It is, in fact, the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere — and millions of degrees hotter than the sun’s surface, heated by plasma jets. The Rockies need plasma jets. Their bats are Fraser in February.

But this is what they wanted: a shot, with six weeks left. What they need?

That’s CarGo.

They need a man whose number will be retired to expedite the process. Is CarGo heating up? As late as it is, it's too early to say. With each rendition of the sweetest swing Coors Field has seen — “Vintage CarGo,” they say, as if he’s 48 with one foot in the tee box — the Rockies hope and pray this is the day.

The Rockies committed to CarGo. Now their main tease must be their main squeeze. In his worst season, Gonzalez has shown his best colors, never hiding from questions, never redirecting blame, never putting his own struggles above the team's accolades. It’s a season that’s had most everything else — a pitcher return from cancer treatment in Chad Bettis, a Colorado guy leap to the top of the rotation in Kyle Freeland, legitimate MVP submissions in Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado.

The happy ending would be CarGo closing the deal. He tied a season-high with three hits Sunday, and this series, against the plucky Brewers, was the first time since May he’s strung together six hits over three games.

"The CarGo that we know should hit 3-4-5," Black said. "Let's hope it's there."

"If this is the beginning of it, that's great for us," he added.

In a lineup that tumbles off a cliff after the 5 spot, CarGo’s is the bat that can lift them up. The Brewers, for example, pitched around Gonzalez (batting .245) to pitch to Trevor Story (.225). Opponents still fear CarGo, at least relative to what’s behind him.

“Just making steps,” Gonzalez said. “I’m getting on base for my teammates. That’s the bottom line. At this point you don’t really play for your numbers; you play for wins.”

A player of CarGo’s caliber should not have four playoff games to his name. He’s batting .588 in the postseason, for what little it’s worth, a sample size limited to a National League Division Series in 2009. CarGo has admitted his season-long struggles have kept him awake at night.

“I think this is a great opportunity for me to step up and help my team even more,” he said.

CarGo is the one who can finish what the Rockies wanted.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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