Lost For The Season: Jorge De La Rosa's Once And Future Odyssey

Rockies fans cringed on May 24 when they saw Jorge De La Rosa leave his start with elbow tightness. It would turn into a full-blown tear of his UCL a few hours later. Now DLR will need to work his way back from injury, just as he worked his way from being a never-will-be to an I-am-so.

@Rockies:
#Rockies LHP Jorge De La Rosa will have Tommy John surgery Friday, will be performed by Dr. Lewis Yocum in LA.

There's no better sports fan experience than being a diehard fan of a baseball team. This is inarguable. Unlike the fits and starts of the irregular basketball and hockey schedules, and the one-day-a-week passion play that is a football season, following a team throughout a baseball season is a daily affair. It becomes part of the routine: wake, eat, work, eat, nap, Rox, sleep, and do it all over again the next day.

 

Follow a team for six months – well, seven if you count spring training, and eight if you're lucky enough to see postseason ball – and you get to know the players on a level beyond their batting averages and ERAs. There is no masking of emotions on a baseball diamond, no way to hide the joy of a hot streak or the agony of a slump. That sort of emotional nudity serves to make the players more human. You feel for the guy who can't get anybody out, and you exult with the hitter who can't stop reaching base.

 

Follow a team long enough and the experience becomes even more rewarding. Todd Helton broke into the big leagues when I was turning 11. I've seen just about every meaningful game of Helton's professional life. I know how smooth it looks when he digs a throw out of the dirt, and I know by his reaction in the batter's box whether he's squared up a fastball or missed it by a grain. I saw the years of invincibility, and the years where his balky back shackled his swing. More than any other sport, the daily grind of game after game, season after season, gives the fan a feeling that he knows the players. Not in the sense that they'll hold a corner table for you at the trendy LoDo clubs after home games, of course. It's hard to describe the feeling, but it's a feeling that makes you want to see the players on your team succeed for reasons beyond the logo on their cap.

 

I want Dexter Fowler to play well because it's so obvious how much he loves the game. I want Johnny Herrera and Huston Street to perform well because they break the mold for their positions. I want Troy Tulowitzki to play well because it means more to him to play well than maybe any player I've ever seen wear a Rockies uniform. Either you think I'm crazy right now, or you're nodding your head in total agreement. That's what being a diehard fan of a team is like.

 

Jorge De La Rosa is another guy I want to see do well, and not just because his doing well gives the Rockies one of the best power lefties in all of baseball. For one, I've always had a soft spot for my fellow southpaws. Tom Glavine was my first "favorite player," I never gave up hope for Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton, and Jeff Francis will always be my favorite Rockie from the pennant season of 2007.

 

De La Rosa was different than any of those guys. Rather than baffling hitters with pinpoint control and a savant's knowledge of the art of pitching, De La Rosa possessed million dollar stuff from the day he first put on a big league uniform. But they gave up on him in Milwaukee, and in Kansas City, where they've been hurting for pitching since Kevin Appier left, a starting pitcher with his stuff was only worth middle reliever Ramon Ramirez in the trade they made with the Rockies back in 2008. It was a lottery ticket, and in a year where the Rockies actually auditioned Livan Hernandez (maybe the worst idea in franchise history, including the Hampton and Neagle contracts), De La Rosa was surely worth a look.

 

What he became was the team's best starting pitcher over the season's final six weeks (5-2 with a 2.61 ERA), and then the team's best pitcher in the second half of the 2009 playoff run. De La Rosa won 16 games that season, and I remain convinced in a complete and admittedly partisan fashion that if he had not injured himself in the final weekend of the season, he would have beaten the Phillies in the NLDS and perhaps helped the Rockies to a second NL pennant in three years.

 

De La Rosa dealt with a freak injury that cost him much of 2010, but when he was healthy, he only seemed to be getting better. He was the classic case study for why you keep giving chances to great arms in hopes that they, too, will find the strike zone and some mental toughness and deliver on the potential their stuff would suggest. He was Bob Apodaca's prize pupil. He was fast becoming – all due respect to my main man Francis – the best lefty in Rockies history.

 

And then last week, his elbow went kablooey. And a season that had started out on an All-Star pace ended with cruel abruptness.

 

It's taken me this long to write about it because... well, I'm a baseball fan. And watching Jorge De La Rosa become what he had become had been one of the great joys of the last three seasons of Rockies baseball. Watching him go from easily frustrated and lacking composure and control in his first days with the club to flat-out dominating games with a cool confidence was a delight, a testament to hard work and determination.

 

Jorge De La Rosa will pitch again. And with the success rate of Tommy John surgery these days, there's a decent chance that when he does come back he'll pitch as though he never left, with the same confidence and same shutdown stuff. With the effort he put in to go from "fringe big-leaguer" to multi-millionaire, I wouldn't bet against him, either.

 

But following the Rockies got a little less fun last Tuesday, when Jorge De La Rosa walked off the mound for the last time in the 2011 season. Try as he might have to disguise his disappointment, and perhaps his fear that the slight elbow twinge he felt would result in the worst-case diagnosis, he couldn't quite manage it. There are no hiding those feelings on a baseball diamond.

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