|Speed the name of the game for Rockies now with Taveras, Matsui|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 21 October 2007 14:11|
Willy Taveras and Kaz Matsui atop the batting order are enough to mess with the mind of any pitcher or catcher.
``With their speed and their ability to get on base, it completely transformed their lineup,'' former Houston Astros manager Phil Garner said. ``The team doesn't have to depend on the long ball to score runs. They allow a manager to do so much and they set the table for the bigger hitters in their lineup.''
So disruptive is this dynamite duo that the Rockies didn't hesitate to tinker with a lineup that had powered them into the playoffs once Taveras recovered from a thigh injury that had sidelined him for the final three weeks of the regular season.
The Rockies reinserted their center fielder into the leadoff spot for the NL championship series, bumping Matsui to second in the batting order. That relegated Rookie of the Year contender Troy Tulowitzki to seventh and sent streaking Ryan Spilborghs to the bench.
But the Rockies kept rolling right along, sweeping Arizona to stretch their remarkable run to 21-1 heading into the World Series.
The risky move paid off when Taveras sparked the winning rally in Game 1, then made a diving catch to save a key run in Game 2, which the Rockies won on his bases-loaded walk in the 11th inning.
Taveras joined the Rockies from Houston in the Jason Jennings trade last winter, and Matsui was rescued from the New York Mets last season after flopping on Broadway. A seven-time All-Star infielder in Japan, he never found a comfort zone in the Big Apple.
Both of them missed significant stretches with injuries this season, but one or the other was usually leading off.
Together, they provide a top of the lineup that most managers can only dream about.
``It should be uncomfortable for the pitcher,'' Taveras said, ``because he knows if he gets me out, he's got to face another guy with the same ability and chance to make something happen.''
Taveras led the majors with 37 bunt hits and 54 infield hits despite missing 66 games with an assortment of injuries. He combined with Matsui to produce the first 30-steal duo in Colorado since 1997.
Matsui stole a career-high 32 bases in 36 attempts while hitting a career-best .288. He leads the Rockies with eight RBIs and a .310 batting average in the playoffs.
``I sense that pitchers work quicker when Willy is on base and I'm batting or when I'm on base when someone else is batting,'' Matsui said through a translator. ``I am a distraction. I want to be a distraction and keep the attention on me. That makes it better for the batters behind me.''
Journeyman left-hander Mark Redman, who joined the Rockies in September and played a key role in their playoff push, said sluggers such as Todd Helton and Matt Holliday are the biggest beneficiaries of all this speed.
``You pick up your pace with runners like Willy and Kaz on base,'' Redman said. ``It's an advantage to the hitter. You see pitchers making adjustments, going to the slide-step to give their catcher a chance. If they get on base, you aren't used to pitching out of the stretch so early.
``You have to watch them and be quick and when you're trying to be quick to plate you're making bad pitches and leaving them up. And they will be hit.''
Taveras and Matsui are two reasons Redman said these Rockies remind him of his time with the 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins, who had speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo at the top of their lineup.
Helton said Colorado's opponents must feel the same way the Rockies do when they face the Dodgers, who feature Pierre and Rafael Furcal.
``It puts a lot of pressure not only on the pitchers but the defense, because they know they can't make any mistakes. The throws have to be perfect and the pitcher's always thinking about them. And I think that's the same thing with what's happening with those guys at the top,'' Helton said.
``Defensively, their speed helps us up the middle, too.''
Thanks in large part to Taveras covering so much ground in the vast outfield at Coors Field and Matsui's smooth glove at second base, Colorado set a major league record for fielding percentage, backing up a solid rotation and brilliant bullpen.
With Taveras and Matsui leading the way, the Blake Street Bombers of the mid-90s have given way to small ball in Denver. Instead of bashing the ball, the Rockies get guys on, move them over and drive them in.
Fittingly, they clinched a trip to the playoffs on Jamey Carroll's shallow sacrifice fly that drove in Holliday, who scraped his chin through the batter's box with the winning run in the bottom of the 13th inning against San Diego in the wild-card tiebreaker.
``We're a National League team with a couple of American Leaguers sprinkled in there,'' pitcher Josh Fogg said.