Venue: Coors Field
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies share a spring training facility, but only the Rockies head into the season with realistic expectations of contending in the NL West.
Their opening day starter is a big reason why.
Ace Ubaldo Jimenez looks to build off his breakout 2010 season when the Rockies give him the ball for Friday afternoon's opener against the visiting Diamondbacks, who are hoping to avoid a third consecutive finish in the division's basement.
It's dangerous to put much stock intro spring training records, but the two tenants of the new, state-of-the-art Salt River Fields spring training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., certainly experienced polar opposite results in March. Colorado finished 20-11 while Arizona stumbled to a 12-25 spring, records that certainly mirror the differing expectations for the two NL West rivals.
A 10-game winning streak in early September put the Rockies in the thick of the playoff race until they finished 1-13, but that late swoon only has manager Jim Tracy's club more eager for opening day.
"There's an air about (our players), the way they go about their business, that strongly suggests to me they realize some very special places we've been together over the past few years," Tracy told the team's official website.
"Basically, the bottom line is this: What we've done and what this organization has accomplished over the last four years with a National League championship, a wild card championship and three winning seasons over the last four years ... we know how to be good."
Part of that pedigree is due to Jimenez (19-8, 2.88 ERA), who made the jump from a solid starter in 2008 and 2009 to a bona fide ace. Jimenez started the season 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA, but even after going 6-7 with a 4.34 ERA after June 17, he finished third in the NL Cy Young voting.
The right-hander spent the spring tinkering with the velocity of his fastball, occasionally taking some speed off. He's anxious to see how it translates to the regular season - and to put his second half behind him.
"I want to give my team a chance every time, and at the same time, try not to beat myself," said Jimenez, who was 2-0 with a 0.45 ERA in three starts against Arizona at Coors Field in 2010. "In the second half I was walking everybody, and with runners on base, they'd hit bloopers and score runs. I didn't give myself a chance."
Jimenez shouldn't have to be flawless with the lineup that'll be supporting him. The Rockies led the NL in runs (410) over the final three months largely thanks to outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Gonzalez turned into one of the game's best five-tool talents in 2010, batting .336 with 34 homers, 117 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. Tulowitzki, meanwhile, missed six weeks with a fractured wrist in the middle of the season, before going on a 22-game September tear in which he hit 15 homers and drove in 40.
After winning 70 games in 2009 and then dropping off to 65-97 last season, the Diamondbacks are hoping they gave themselves a chance to turn it around in 2011 in Kirk Gibson's first full season as manager after taking over midway through 2010.
While there's an improving farm system - and two of the top seven picks in June's amateur draft - their major league talent took a hit. Gone are first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose $7.5 million team option was declined, and third baseman Mark Reynolds, who was dealt to Baltimore.
The duo totaled 57 homers and 185 RBIs, but also 383 of Arizona's MLB-record 1,529 strikeouts. In Reynolds' place is veteran Melvin Mora, while Russell Branyan and Juan Miranda will split time at first.
Despite the empty at-bats, the absence of a pair of big run producers will put more pressure on Justin Upton, Chris Young and Stephen Drew, the last of whom won't start Friday because of a lower abdominal strain.
"I think we'll be a nice offensive club," general manager Kevin Towers said. "Even without LaRoche and Reynolds, we're going to score enough runs. I think it's going to come down to our pitching."
Kennedy (9-10, 3.80) will start the opener - the first time since 2005 anyone but Dan Haren or Brandon Webb has gotten that nod - and he had a fine second half off which to build. Kennedy was 6-9 with a 4.47 ERA through Aug. 9, but a 3-1 record with a 2.13 ERA over his final nine starts has boosted the right-hander's own expectations.
"I want to be one of the best pitchers in the league," Kennedy told the Diamondbacks' official website. "I want to be one of the guys where, when you say my name, you think reliable and consistent pitcher, not a guy that's up and down. I feel like that's what really good pitchers do."
Kennedy was 0-0 with a 2.40 ERA in three starts down the stretch against Colorado.
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