The Rockies will be without Troy Tulowitzki, their best player, for several weeks. (David Zalubowski/AP)
After what happened on Thursday, the Rockies could be forgiven for believing that bad luck comes in threes. Over the course of a single game, they lost a trio of their most productive hitters — Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Folwer and Troy Tulowitzki — to injuries. While the first two aren't serious enough to warrant trips to the disabled list, their star shortstop will be out four to six weeks due to a broken rib, a harsh blow that's likely to knock one of the season's more surprising teams back below .500 before it's all said and done.
The trauma started in the bottom of the first inning of Thursday's 5-4 loss to the Nationals. Gonzalez was standing in the on-deck circle when he was struck in the left foot by a Jordan Pacheco foul ball. He was pulled from the game before he could even bat in favor of Tyler Colvin. X-rays were negative and he's listed as day-to-day with a contusion:
In the third inning, Fowler was hit on the right knuckle of his ring finger by a Ross Detwiler pitch while squaring to bunt. He stayed in the game until the fifth, when the swelling prevented him from being able to grip the bat. That forced him to yield to Jonathan Herrera, who was making just his second major league appearance in the outfield. Again, X-rays were negative and Fowler is considered day-to-day.
In the eighth inning, Tulowitzki dove for an Ian Desmond ground ball up the middle; he stopped the ball but couldn't make a play, and was slow to get up. When his spot in the lineup came up in the bottom of the frame, he was replaced by pinch-hitter Yorvit Torrealba. X-rays revealed a fractured rib, though the play may have simply exacerbated a previous injury, given that the star shortstop had reportedly been playing through rib pain.
Tulowitzki's loss is all the more painful because the 28-year-old shortstop is off to a blazing start, hitting .347/.413/.635 with 16 homers; the slugging percentage leads the league, the batting average is second and the on-base percentage and home run total are both third. Even once you let some of the air out of those altitude-inflated stats using True Average — a measure of his runs created per out, translated to a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring levels — his .326 mark ranks third behind Paul Goldschmidt (.333) and Joey Votto (.332). Gonzalez (.299/.375/.618 with a league-high 18 homers) is 12th with a .316 True Average, while Fowler (.302/.399/.498) is 30th at .286. The only other Rockies regular with a True Average above the National League average of .260 is Michael Cuddyer (.337/.394/.601), whose .320 mark is eighth. Fortunately, he was unscathed on Thursday; under the circumstances, you could have forgiven the team for whisking him away to an undisclosed location for his own protection.
The downgrade from Tulowitzki to likely fill-in Josh Rutledge is a steep one. Last year, Rutledge stepped in after Tulo suffered a severe groin injury in late May, one that effectively ended his season after 61 games, though he attempted to return in late September. Rutledge hit .274/.306/.469 with eight homers in 73 games, and won the starting second baseman job this spring, but the 24-year-old infielder hit just .242/.298/.357 with five homers in 43 games before being sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs in late May, replaced in the lineup by DJ LeMathieu. While Tulowitzki is a plus on both sides of the ball — with five Defensive Runs Saved, his 3.6 Wins Above Replacement is the league's third-highest mark — Rutledge is shaky. He was 11 runs below average at shortstop last year according to DRS, en route to a −0.1 WAR, and within the small sample of this year's numbers, he was nine below average at second base en route to a −0.5 WAR.
Powered by the return of Tulowitzki and starting pitchers Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio — a trio that combined for just 28 starts last year as Colorado lost a franchise record 98 games — the Rockies have rebounded to emerge as contenders in the NL West. Under rookie manager Walt Weiss, they're 35-32, tied for second at 2 1/2 games out of first. But since bolting to a 13-4 start, they're 22-28, vying with the Dodgers (21-27) for the division's worst record in that span. Unless hitters like Todd Helton (.252/.313/.415) or Nolan Arenaod (.257/.295/.437) can pick up the slack in Tulowitzki's absence, the team is unlikely to keep pace with the pack. If there's a silver lining, it's that fractures tend to heal in an orderly fashion, whereas soft tissue injuries may not, so at least the Rockies can look forward to the day when their best player returns.