Friday October 9th, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- His clubhouse nickname is "Little Pony," but Carlos Gonzalez's influence on the Rockies has been as big as a 757, which is precisely Colorado's winning percentage in games that the 23-year-old outfielder started this season.

No baseball team gets hotter than the Rockies, and the Rockies have been hottest when Gonzalez is starting. Manager Jim Tracy has written CarGo's name on his lineup card 70 times, and Colorado has won 53 of those games, a .757 rate.

Gonzalez, who has started the postseason 5 for 9, keyed the Rockies offense on Thursday afternoon, with three hits and a first-inning run that set the tone for a 5-4 win, evening the Division Series at 1-1. Facing a second straight southpaw ace from the Phillies -- Cole Hamels, a day after Cliff Lee threw a one-run, complete-game gem -- the Rockies wanted to take a more patient approach in the batter's box.

In the game's first at bat, Gonzalez worked the count from 1-2 to full, then grounded a single through the right side of the infield. He stole second base -- though, admittedly, Hamels had him picked off first and Gonzalez simply beat Ryan Howard's throw to second -- moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and sped home on Todd Helton's infield dribbler.

"Cliff Lee pitched a really good game, but we were very anxious at the plate," said Gonzalez in the Citizens Bank Park visiting clubhouse, sporting a version of the mane of hair (a gelled-up faux-hawk) that inspired teammate Brad Hawpe to give him the Little Pony nickname. "He threw his pitches and we were jumping at the first pitch. Tonight was different. We worked the count and made him throw strikes."

Being more patient at the plate has been the biggest key to Gonzalez's development. Signed out of his native Venezuela by the Diamondbacks when he was 16, he has been saddled with the baggage of expectations, which is what happens when a prospect is labeled "can't-miss" with "five tools," or traded for a pair of All-Stars. Gonzalez has been the key chip in trades for Dan Haren and Matt Holliday in consecutive offseasons, shuttling from Arizona to Oakland and then to Colorado, where he certainly enjoyed a better day on Thursday than Holliday, whose error led to the Cardinals' collapse against the Dodgers.

Gonzalez received his first taste of the majors with the A's last year, but his admitted impatience got the best of him. He averaged only 3.43 pitches each trip to the batter's box -- which ranked in the bottom 25 of all players with at least 300 plate appearances -- and hit only .242 with four homers and four steals in 85 games.

After raking at Triple-A Colorado Springs to start his tenure with his new organization (batting .339 with 10 home runs), Gonzalez was promoted to the Rockies on June 5, a few days after Colorado dismissed manager Clint Hurdle when they were 21-32, the second-worst record in the National League. Initially, Gonzalez continued to struggle at the plate and contributed mostly with his glove, while the club reeled off 17 wins in 18 games.

"He takes a lot of pressure off me," Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler said of Gonzalez's fielding in left. "He's a natural center fielder, so he helps me cover the gaps."

And Gonzalez's bat soon came around, too. Surrounded by three of the top 15 most patient hitters in baseball (Helton, Hawpe and Fowler), Gonzalez followed suit, showing a modest increase in pitches per plate appearance (3.75) and a dramatic increase in production. He turned his rocky start -- a .223 average and one home run in 36 games through July 30 -- into a classic, Rockies hot streak. While the team surged to 18 wins in 25 games, Gonzalez batted .388 in that span (26 for 67), with seven home runs, including a stretch in which he homered in six of eight games.

"It was really hard for me," Gonzalez said of his slow start. "You have to keep yourself happy and focused on the game, to try and keep working to win your job back. They gave me an opportunity early in the season, and I didn't do anything. They sent me to the bench, but you have to keep positive and keep working. The key was being patient, waiting for my pitch and just hitting it."

What eventually slowed Gonzalez was an accident at home. While cleaning his dinner plate, a steak knife fell off the side and he instinctively tried to catch it, only the part he snagged was the blade, slicing his left hand. He received a stitch and was relegated primarily to pinch-running duty for a few days. When Gonzalez returned to the lineup, he batted .275 with five more homers in September and October. In 2009 with Colorado he had only one more plate appearance than he did in Oakland in '08 -- but his average was 42 points higher (.284), his on-base percentage was 80 points higher (.353) and he swatted 13 homers and stole 16 bases.

"He's been huge for us since he's been swinging a hot bat, which has been a while now," said second baseman Clint Barmes. "Having him at the top of the order and getting on base like he does, steal some bags and get in scoring position for us."

After Gonzalez's promotion to the majors, the Rockies went 71-38, nine games better than any other NL team in the same period. During the August hot streak Gonzalez emerged as a viable top-of-the-order threat, usually as the leadoff hitter, reaching base and hitting the ball hard to all fields. This in turn allows Fowler to bat in what he calls his "natural" No. 2 spot. Fowler proved to be a classic 2-hole hitter in Thursday's Game 2 win, with three sacrifices, a bunt in the first to move Gonzalez from second to third (he later scored) and two run-scoring flies for Colorado's final two runs of the game.

So while Gonzalez is the most extreme example, Tracy has also been rewarded for his faith in riding out another streak, making Yorvit Torrealba his every-day catcher down the stretch. Torrealba's OPS this season was 72 points lower than Chris Iannetta's, but Torrealba batted .333 in his final 30 games and popped a two-run homer off Hamels on Thursday.

"You've got to run with it whenever you get a hot bat," Barmes said of what's fast becoming the club's specialty.

Now the Rockies return home to Denver, where the weather forecast for Saturday's Game 3 is 32 degrees with 50 percent chance of ice pellets and a far greater likelihood of a Hall of Famer as the opposing starting pitcher. On Friday manager Charlie Manuel confirmed his Game 3 starter: Pedro Martinez, who has reinvented himself in his cameo with the Phillies this year. Presuming he can get loose in the Colorado cold, Martinez could pose a problem for the Rockies, few of whom have ever faced him. (When asked about facing Martinez, Gonzalez said that he had only faced the video-game Pedro on PlayStation.)

No matter who starts for Philadelphia, one can count on Gonzalez leading off for the Rockies, as they try to jet back to the World Series.

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