HOUSTON — Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez thumbed through the pages of the coffee-table book Thursday, eyes widening with each photo. There was a picture of the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax unleashing a curveball, a portrait of the Cardinals' Willie McGee and Vince Coleman and a vivid shot of Ebbets Field.
The ballpark took Gonzalez back to his days as a kid in Venezuela. There's nothing like manicured green grass, red-white-and-blue bunting and a packed stadium. Gonzalez has experienced the thrill before, but when he takes his position in left field tonight at Minute Maid Park, he will feel less isolated, more protected.
"It's a way different feeling than when we came out of spring training a year ago. Last year, if the three, four and five hitters didn't hit, we were done," Gonzalez said. "This season, even if me, Tulo and Todd (Helton) go 0-for-4, we can still win. And we will."
Considering the disaster the Rockies were last time they arrived in Houston in late September, that's a healthy dose of optimism. Colorado has more wrinkles than a Shar-Pei, but the team left camp feeling it was better, not just older.
The lineup is completely reshuffled.
Second baseman Marco Scutaro, who had a .358 on-base percentage last season with the Red Sox, will lead off. He walked 15 times in spring training. Right fielder Michael Cuddyer, the most expensive free agent signed by any National League West team, mans the sixth spot, which was a consistent fire extinguisher to all rallies a year ago. Ramon Hernandez is catching. He cut his teeth with the pitching staff that was conveniently forgotten in "Moneyball."
"We have more proven guys than I have ever played with," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. "The guys we added are all gamers. They enjoy it. Some people say you have to wait until the regular season to get a read, but I don't worry about that. These guys have us headed in the right direction."
Part of general manager Dan O'Dowd's massive overhaul was designed to add players who were more team-first than first-team. The Rockies were fundamentally flawed a year ago, which smacked of selfishness. Improving situational at-bats was a constant theme all spring, with manager Jim Tracy quick to single out players who moved runners over or scored them from third with a groundball or a sacrifice fly.
"We've added guys who have been there, done that," Tulowitzki said.
The offense must be prolific, because it will be expected to carry the pitching staff, particularly early in the season. The Rockies will open the year with a four-man staff. Not one of the pitchers had a winning record last year. Only Jeremy Guthrie, who makes his fourth opening-day start in five years, reached 200 innings. He will be followed by Jamie Moyer, who made his major-league debut two years before home-opening starter Jhoulys Chacin was born.
"This game will humble you. You have to work and dedicate yourself and figure out where you fit. Who am I? What is my role? And how can I help my team be better every day?" Moyer said Thursday. "It starts with the Skipper exuding confidence. And the mark of a good team is that you don't roll over. You win games that you shouldn't."
The Rockies broke camp last season with urgency, determined to exorcise demons of Aprils past. They went 17-8, then promptly careened into a ditch, posting a winning record in only one other month the rest of the season.
"That's the difference with this team. Guys have been through this. There are veterans and leaders everywhere," veteran first baseman Jason Giambi said. "Of course we want to get off to a good start, but we aren't going to panic if we don't."
A number of things have to go right for the Rockies to contend. Their lineup must mash mediocre pitching — and the Astros' staff is thin beyond Wandy Rodriguez. They must play good defense, get competent starting pitching and white-knuckle cross their fingers that the bullpen isn't gassed by June.
If last year taught the Rockies anything, it's that their failure was rooted in numbers. They can't win with one all-star, such as Tulowitzki, or an MVP candidate like Gonzalez.
Turning through the pages of the book, CarGo stopped at a picture of Orioles' pitcher Jim Palmer getting doused in a celebratory clubhouse.
"I know no one is picking us, but we want to surprise people. To get to the playoffs, to win a World Series," Gonzalez said. "But you can't do it with one or two guys. We have the veterans now who know what it takes. I really think we can do something special if we all work together as a team."
Troy E. Renck: 303-954-1294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday: Rockies at Astros, 5:05 p.m., ROOT, 850 AM
Jeremy Guthrie (9-17, 4.33 ERA in 2011) is the Boy Scout of the Rockies' pitching staff. He's always prepared. He spent the past few weeks analyzing video of NL hitters in general and the Astros specifically. Guthrie enters his fourth opening-day start with a 3.62 ERA against NL opponents. Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49) is the pitcher the Rockies wanted before Guthrie. They claimed Rodriguez off waivers last August, but Houston pulled him back. Todd Helton has raked the lefty, going 11-for-25 with a .500 OBP.
Troy E. Renck, The Denver Post
Upcoming pitching matchups
Saturday: Rockies' Jamie Moyer (did not play in 2011) at Astros' Lucas Harrell (0-2, 4.50), 5:05 p.m., ROOT
Sunday: Rockies' Juan Nicasio (4-4, 4.14) at Astros' Bud Norris (6-11, 3.77), 12:05 p.m., ROOT
Monday: Giants' Barry Zito (3-4, 5.87) at Rockies' Jhoulys Chacin (11-14, 3.62), 2:10 p.m., ROOT