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Paul Klee: Toughest call of Colorado Rockies' season is removing Carlos Gonzalez from the lineup

By: Paul Klee
July 6, 2017 Updated: July 7, 2017 at 2:00 pm
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DENVER — Just a guess, but there were probably 15,000 people still hanging out at Coors Field when Carlos Gonzalez struck out with an awkward, flailing swing to end the eighth inning on Thursday.

And nobody booed. Gonzalez is beloved enough here that fans will hold his struggles against the Rockies for sticking him back out there, not against him for contracting the yips with the most beautiful swing you've ever laid eyes on. Somewhere above the press box, a woman managed an “it’s OK, CarGo,” like you would to encourage Li'l Timmy at a Little League game.

Sadly and suddenly, they’ve come to expect the runner on third to stay there. But CarGo? In the worst stretch of his 10-year career, he remains both pleasant and defiant, two of the reasons fans are bummed out instead of trying to kick him out the door. 

“The manager wants me to execute. Everybody in the stadium wants me to execute,” CarGo said while answering question after question in a dead-quiet clubhouse following yet another Rockies loss, this one 6-3 to the Reds on Thursday. “Of course I get down.”

Colorado loves CarGo, and CarGo has earned 78 million reasons to love Colorado back. Breakups are tougher to swallow when there are no hard feelings. But here we are, at the toughest decision of Bud Black’s brief time as manager of the Rockies: What to do with CarGo? Human nature says you give an athlete with CarGo’s resume an extra week or three to fix what’s wrong. Right or wrong, I fall into a similar trap with the good guys: If he’s always available for the tough questions, win or lose, the tough calls can wait an extra day.

Colorado Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez sits in the dugout after grounding out against the Philadelphia Phillies to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Denver. The Rockies won 7-3. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

That extra day has come and gone. CarGo no longer can be the everyday right fielder and a bat you can depend on. The Rockies must approach his decline with their brains, not their hearts, because the latter is what they used to do. 

The reason the Rockies are in this spot — as a leading contender for a wild-card berth in the National League — is because they don't do what they used to do.

Gonzalez has played in 23 games since June 1. He’s had 12 hits. His OPS of .644 is the lowest since his rookie year in 2008, and his batting average of .220 would be the lowest ever. Despite a slide that keeps him awake at night, Gonzalez was batting cleanup Thursday. See, the club is giving him every shot to snap out of it and transform back into the slugger who gave you a reason to visit the ballpark, even when the home team languished in last place. Tulo was another.

“It looks to me, in general and overall his season, he is expanding the zone a little too much this season. He’s swinging at balls too often,” Black said. “In his desire to get hits, hitters become more aggressive. That’s what I’m seeing: An expansion of his hitting zone, which always leads to trouble. … I think they’re taking advantage of his desire to get hits and get on track.”

The Rockies won’t cop to it, but they are panicking. They were so eager to prove this slump is a fluke and soon will pass, they drew only one walk. That’s understandable; 12 losses in 15 games will push anybody’s panic button.

“When you don’t hit, I think guys have a tendency to try harder,” Black said.

The Rox's inability to hit isn’t just a CarGo problem. Not hardly. MLB’s average OPS hovers around .750, and the Rox have only three guys with an OPS that’s above average. So if you get past Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Mark Reynolds, the rest of the lineup has been below average and not scaring anyone. Ever since Arenado smacked a memorable walk-off home run to beat the Giants — 16 games ago — the Rockies are averaging a field goal per game. Even the Broncos offense thinks that stinks.

Two weeks ago Coors Field was the happiest landmark this side of Water World. Now it’s ground zero for uh-oh, here we go again. The Jumbotron videos that seemed cute a month ago — “I wouldn’t want to see (Carlos Gonzalez) playing linebacker,” D.J. LeMahieu joked on the videoboard — aren’t funny anymore. The frustration is thicker than Charlie Blackmon’s beard. “I’m frustrated just like everybody else,” Gonzalez said.

When Ian Desmond comes off the disabled list, he should join Blackmon and Ramiel Tapia in the outfield. Just as Black shifted the lineup to have Tapia batting leadoff and Blackmon batting third on Thursday, it’s time to try something else. Sticking with what doesn’t work is why people got mad at the Rockies in the first place.

“I’ve been the best player in the game and the worst player in the game. Right now I feel like I’m the worst player in the game,” Gonzalez said. “But you’ve got to keep working, keep fighting. It’s a long season.”

One of the issues with the old Rockies was how they fell in love with their guys for just long enough that it was too long. Todd Helton's final years spring to mind. But these Rockies aren’t those Rockies. These guys have a chance, and a pretty good one: While the Dodgers leave a trail of scorched earth in their wake and will run away with the NL West, the Rockies still hold a 72 percent chance at a playoff berth, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. You take those odds like a four-pitch walk.

Taking CarGo out of the lineup is a tougher call. Yes, the storybook ending still includes Chad Bettis returning from cancer to start a game with playoff implications, CarGo smashing a home run to win it. But for now his trademark bombs must come as a pinch-hitter. CarGo's no longer the best option.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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