The Colorado Rockies entered the 2007 All-Star break in fourth place in the NL West, but ended up in the World Series. As they begin the second half this year, they're again in fourth -- but with a longer road back to the postseason.
The defending NL champs, 8 1/2 games behind in baseball's worst division, will try to avoid a fifth straight loss Thursday when they open a four-game set with the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates.Colorado (39-57) was 44-44 and 5 1/2 games behind division-leading San Diego at the break last year, but went 46-29 the rest of the way to capture the wild card. The Rockies closed the regular season on a 14-1 tear to tie the Padres, whom they defeated in a one-game playoff to earn the postseason berth en route to winning the NL pennant.There are again three teams above the Rockies in the West this year as they prepare to face the Pirates (44-50), but Colorado's record is the fourth-worst in the majors."The bottom line is we're only a few games out and the reality is we've played some pretty good teams," third baseman Garrett Atkins told the team's official Web site. "It's premature to give up on the season, especially the way we've been playing lately."Part of the reason for Colorado's struggles can be attributed to injuries, as pitcher Jeff Francis, first baseman Todd Helton, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Ryan Spilborghs are on the disabled list. Of the Rockies' top five run producers last season, only Atkins has avoided a trip to the DL.Meanwhile, All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday -- who can become a free agent after 2009 -- has been rumored to be on the move prior to the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline."That's obviously their decision -- management's going to do what they think is best," said Holliday, hitting .337 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs. "As players, we have confidence in ourselves that we can play well and have a good second half and make a run at whoever is in first place."To do that, the Rockies will need to improve offensively -- they're 10th in the NL in runs and scored once in three games while being swept by the New York Mets before the break. They'll also need better pitching from a staff that's 28th in the majors with a 4.93 ERA.Ubaldo Jimenez (4-9, 4.22 ERA) will get the ball Thursday, and he's performed better of late after a poor start. He's 3-3 with a 2.28 ERA in his last seven starts after beginning the season 1-6 with a 5.43 ERA.Jimenez gave up three runs over six innings in a 3-0 loss at New York on Saturday.Pittsburgh, owner of the worst ERA in baseball at 5.24, will send their top starter to the mound in red-hot Paul Maholm (6-5, 3.93). The left-hander hasn't lost in nearly two months, and he's 1-0 with a 1.96 ERA in his last three starts.Maholm, the only Pirates starter to last eight innings this season, did it for the second consecutive game last Thursday. He gave up two runs and seven hits in Pittsburgh's 4-2 win over the New York Yankees."(He's become) a student of the game," manager John Russell told the Pirates' official Web site. "He has taught himself a lot about pitching. He's a guy that you feel real comfortable with in (key) situations."Maholm allowed one run over seven innings in his last start in Colorado, a 5-1 victory Aug. 23.Pittsburgh is tied for fourth in the NL in runs, led by the league's most productive outfield. Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and All-Star center fielder Nate McLouth have combined for 50 homers and 174 RBIs.