PHOENIX -- The Rockies began a possibly season-defining, 10-game National League West road trip with leadoff man Dexter Fowler and cleanup hitter Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list and, at least for one start, without National League home run leader Carlos Gonzalez.
At 2 1/2 games behind the first-place D-backs, the Rockies entered with optimism. The stretch began with Friday's opener of three against the D-backs, and the trip will include three games at San Diego and four at Los Angeles.
The trip is a challenge for a club that has tried to stay even-keeled through hot streaks and cold ones. With five wins in the last 16 games, it's been cold and painful. Fowler has a right hand injury, Tulowitzki a broken rib. Gonzalez suffered a strain to a muscle on the left side of his back, just under the shoulder blade, during Thursday night's victory over the Dodgers.
"You're always aware of who you're playing; it's not like it's you ask us and we don't know," said right fielder Michael Cuddyer, who entered Friday hitting .343 with 15 homers and 52 RBIs, with hits in 29 of his last 30 games. "We know we've got Arizona, San Diego and Los Angeles. We also know that everybody is tight in the standings.
"But when we get between the lines, in inning one, two, whatever inning, we're not thinking about Sunday's game. That's what players mean."
One reason Cuddyer likes the Rockies' chances was the offensive performance in the final two games of the series against the Dodgers, when the Rockies dropped two of three. They were shut down by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the first game, but that's happened to a lot of teams. But they scored eight runs in the second game and nine in the third, and even with a makeshift lineup, were hit-for-hit with a Dodgers lineup that's one of baseball's hottest.
"We've got a good offense," Cuddyer said. "Right after the All-Star break, maybe even before, we're going to have everybody back at full strength. Obviously, missing Tulo speaks for itself, but missing Dexter -- the leadoff guy and a good defender in center field -- there are very few leadoff hitters with a .390 on-base percentage and he's one of them."
The Dodgers' lengthy period of hot hitting has made them the popular pick to break out in the division.
"They're going through a really good stretch right now, just like we did, the Giants did, the Padres did, everybody did," Gonzalez said. "At some point, they're going to struggle like everybody else. It's not like they're not going to lose a game. They still have to pitch.
"That's how baseball is. You go through a good stretch, then you have to hit the survive button, then battle until you come back again. I don't think Hanley [Ramirez] is going to hit .400 the whole year. I don't think [Yasiel] Puig is going to hit .400 this whole year."
Progressing Tulowitzki maintains positive outlook
PHOENIX -- Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, sounding more optimistic by the day, took batting practice on the field for the second straight day on Friday.
Tulowitzki, who suffered a broken rib on June 13, is on the 10-game road trip with the team, hoping he will feel healthy enough to go on a brief Minor League rehab assignment and possibly even return to the lineup before the All-Star break. Tulowitzki is hitting .347 with 16 homers and 51 RBIs in 61 games -- numbers worthy of National League Most Valuable Player consideration.
"I definitely hope for that, but I just don't know how I'm going to feel these next couple of days," Tulowitzki said. "I could go out and play rehab or stay [with the team] on this whole trip if I don't see any improvement. But I've had some improvement. Hopefully, it continues.
"I need to see my normal swing in BP, not babying it through the zone. Just no pain, just feeling good."
Tulowitzki said he expects to have to play through some pain. He will likely wear a lightweight rib pad, much like is worn by skill position players in football, to protect him when he dives for balls.
CarGo gets day off to rest sore back
PHOENIX -- The Rockies decided to trade one day of having left fielder Carlos Gonzalez for the possibility that his sore upper back will heal with a day of rest.
Gonzalez sustained a strain to one of the muscles that stabilize the left shoulder blade during Thursday night's 9-5 victory over the Dodgers. Gonzalez left the game chasing a low-and-outside pitch, and head athletic trainer Keith Dugger said he believes the issue started earlier in the game on a head-first slide to home plate.
Gonzalez said Thursday night that he expected to play Friday night in the opener of a three-game set against the National League West-leading D-backs, with the Rockies in second place, 2 1/2 games off the pace. However, manager Walt Weiss, who has been careful with his star players this season, didn't put Gonzalez in the starting lineup. Gonzalez was available to pinch-hit, however.
"It's just a little sore from yesterday, but I feel better than yesterday and that's a good sign," said Gonzalez, who took batting practice Friday. "It happens to me every single Spring Training, early when we start playing. But it takes, like, a couple days to feel normal again, sometimes a week. But I can definitely play through it."
Gonzalez is dealing with the pain at the beginning of a 10-game road trip against the D-backs, Padres and Dodgers -- all hoping to gain traction in the NL West. The Rockies also have two key players on the disabled list, center fielder Dexter Fowler (right hand) and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (broken rib). Still, the Rockies chose to be cautious with Gonzalez.
"That's the last thing that I want to happen, be out of the lineup when we have two important players out," Gonzalez said. "I want to do everything to stay in the lineup. But it's good to sit today, take a breather and make it better."
Gonzalez said the injury caused pain when he threw, as well as when he swung the bat.
Corey Dickerson started in left field and Tyler Colvin played center Friday night.
Rockies honor fallen firefighters with D-backs
PHOENIX -- During batting practice and the National Anthem, Rockies and D-backs wore caps honoring the 19 elite firefighters from the Prescott (Ariz.) Fire Dept. who lost their lives in the recent Yarnell Wildfire.
The Rockies also hung a white No. 19 jersey with "YARNELL" across the back in their dugout.
"It sounds like it was a pretty elite unit," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "I don't know much about fighting fires, but it sounded like it turned around on them and just swallowed them up."
Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu was playing at Triple-A Colorado Springs earlier this year when that entire area was affected by wildfires, and understands the danger that those brave enough to battle them face.
"It's a sad situation," LeMahieu said. "I was in Colorado Springs earlier this year and I know how dangerous it can be. I'm happy to honor these firefighters.
"That was scary in Colorado Springs last year. A lot of fans and staff for the Sky Sox, their homes were in danger. A lot of people there didn't get a lot of stuff out of their house because it was burning so fast."
Cook, Francis may help Rockies staff later on
PHOENIX -- Remember those happy times, when left-hander Jeff Francis and right-hander Aaron Cook were stalwarts of a Rockies club that went to the World Series in 2007. Can the pair turn back the clock and help the 2013 club?
Rockies assistant pitching coach Bo McLaughlin doesn't believe the thought is so far-fetched. Both are in Triple-A Colorado Springs, and seem to be on an upswing. They're not being looked at to carry the club, but the Rockies might need them if they're in a late-season playoff race and need decent starts and a volume of innings.
With high-profile pitching difficult to obtain on the trade market, the Rockies might need to reach into their system if they need help. Those would not be the type of moves that excite fans, but if they provide competent innings and give the lineup -- once it's healthy -- a chance to win games, that might be good enough.
Francis began the year in the rotation and struggled to 2-5 with a 6.58 ERA in 11 starts before the Rockies convinced him to accept an option to Colorado Springs. Francis' numbers in four starts for the Sky Sox are actually worse -- 0-2, 6.62 ERA. But his last two outings have been encouraging -- three hits and two runs in 5 2/3 innings on June 28, and five innings, two runs and five hits Thursday night. The reports McLaughlin has seen indicate Francis could make himself competitive at the big-league level again.
"He's using his fastball a lot more and it's helping him out," McLaughlin said. "He's spotting it up better, he's more aggressive with it, and it's making his other pitches better. And by throwing his fastball more, he's staying around 88 mph instead of 86 or 85, so there's more velocity. He's going to help us win some more ballgames before it's all over.
"He's still working hard, trying to make himself better. He knows the opportunity is going to be here. He has to keep doing his thing."
Cook, 34, who rejoined the Rockies after being released by the Phillies at the end of Spring Training, missed a month with elbow soreness. But he returned Wednesday and struck out two while giving up two runs and five hits in four innings while working with a tight pitch count. McLaughlin said the month of rest and rehab has done Cook some good.
"He's always had a good sinker, and with the rehab he's had time to get his good breaking ball," McLaughlin said. "If he gets his breaking ball back … That's when he was at his best, when he had those two pitches.
"We don't want to forget about those guys. That's why I keep track of them. They just might help us."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.