Its only April 30, but the Rockies are killing the ball at home, with an 8-4 record, winning each series 2-1 so far. They lost out of the sweep against the DBack in series one when Wade Miley, a soft-tossing lefty caused their bats to go cold and the pitching was just not good enough, as Brett Anderson was just not good enough (as he had been in his first outing). They fought back to make it close, but lost the sweep 5-3. Next up against the White Sox, they lost the sweep after facing soft-tossing Jose Quintana and the big bats of some rookie Jose Abreu. Still 4-2 on a home stand is not bad. The next home stand had the Rockies going all Sandy Kofax in holding the Philies to 1 run in the first two games before Juan Nicasio was given a 6-3 lead going into the 6th on a Sunday day game but he and the pen ended up losing it 10-9. The same thing happened the last game of the home set, as, after keeping the Giants to 2 and 1 runs in the first two games to of the series, walked into a get-away game full of wind to see the Giants come back from a 5-1 lead given to Tyler Chatwood and eventually losign in the 11th 12-10 (though like the Phils game, bringing the tying run to the plate). 8-4 at home, exactly what you want from this team. Yes, it could easily be 10-2 or even 11-1, but still, they need to play .600 plus baseball at home if they want to battle for the playoffs all year long.
But the road…the road has always killed this team. Winning on the road in any sport is hard, but in 20 years of baseball, the Rockies have only ever been a winning team on the road once! That is hard to do. Once! The season began in Miami with a 1-3 road trip. The opening day you just tip your hat to what might be the best arm in the National League (certainly the best righty, with only Kershaw at the same level as Fernandez, who is going to win several Cy Youngs if he stays healthy). They had a real chance in the second game, as Brett Anderson was just a little worse than Nathan Eovaldi, another young arm that the Rox have struggled against. The fourth run allowed by Anderson was thanks to an error, one of the few times the defense has hurt this team all year. The third game of the series saw the Rox battle to a 6-5 win on the back of 5 good innings from Lyles and overall good pen work. The next day with a chance to tie the series, Franklin Morales got them into the 6th with a chance to win. Tommy Kahnle gave up a run, but they still had the lead going into the 8th when Matt Belise had one of those innings that makes you wonder if he is going to be a meaningful part of the pen this year. He wasn’t hammered in the inning but gave up 4 runs, taking the team from a series split to a 1-3 start. A series that with a bit better defense and a few more timely hits could have been a 3-1 series. At this point most people thought this was going to be more typical Rockies road baseball.
Their second road series, to the San Francisco and San Diego after the White Sox home game again started off bad. Staked to a 3-1 lead, Jorge De La Rosa gave up a grand slam to Bumgarner (this team really does struggle getting pitchers out) but down 5-4, the Rox had the tying run at 2nd with 1 out, but wasn’t able to bring in the run. Still 4 runs in San Francisco was a promising sign. The next day the Roxs won a 1-0 game thanks to the pen as the Brett Anderson suffered one of the strangest injuries ever as the rattle through the bat broke his fingers (Rockies trainer Keith Duggar said in all of his years he had never heard of read of such). In the third game, with a chance to win a series in San Francisco, Tyler Chatwood making his first start of the season, was less solid for 4 innings but then gave-up four runs in the next two innings. Now typically, in seasons of old, this team would have packed it in. But beginning with this game, the Rockies have shown a resiliency that demonstrates itself as never giving up, keep battling, keep working every AB til the end. Getting 1 in the 7th and 2 in the 8th to tie it, they had the Giants on the ropes. Sadly Rex Brothers gave-up a walk-off homer to lefty Brandon Crawford to give the Giants the game and the series.
Onto San Diego where they again lost a close one, 5-4, when Rex Brothers allowed 2 runs in the 8th, turning a win to a loss. Next day thanks to Nicasio’s last good outing (6 innings or 2 run-ball) and the pen held it up. The third game was a close one, with Padres ace Andrew Cashner throwing just a bit better than DLR, and the Rox got 1 in 8th but that was it. But on getaway day in San Diego, facing a no-hitter from Ian Kennedy through 6, the Rox scored 3 big runs, made them hold up, and returned home with a 3-4 road trip, one of the toughest trips in team history (the San Fran-San Diego trip). Again, they easily could have walked away 5-2 on the trip, as they were still not getting the key hits or avoiding the defensive mistakes. But, through two road trips they were 4-7, not the worst start to Rockies road play.
The third trip, coming on the heels of the final game San Francisco debacle, I had my doubts as they headed to Los Angeles and Arizona. Los Angeles has always been tough, and even though Arizona has been horrible all season, typically this is where the team falls apart. Opening game in LA they struggled against Josh Beckett but fought to a 2-2 tie (and had it not been for the Dee Gordon bunt “double” Jordan Lyles would have left after pitching 7 innings with a 2-1 lead). Fighting into extra innings the Rox scored 3 off the very good but very overused Dodgers pen, getting 3 runs (making a loser of ex-Rockie Jamey Wright, despite his good pitching), and survived a 2-run homer from Adrian Gonzalez for a 5-4 win. The next game, Juan Nicasio was unable to keep up the rhythm of good pitching, staking the Dodgers to a 5-2 lead and not making it out of the 5th. Facing soft-tossing lefty Paul Malholm, the Rox bats struggled until he was pulled after 7. Good pen work by Kahnle and Chris Martin (in his professional debut) but another rough outing from Matt Belisle gave the Dodgers a 6-3 lead. The team had a chance to tie it up in the 8th and 9th, but they to get the big hit. Again, even when they lose they are battling to the very end of each game, and in the major leagues that is going to help you win games that you might just have lost otherwise.
The Sunday day game was even bigger, a 6-1 victory over Ryu, as DLR was the best we had seen all year (thanks to the best defensive game by Nolan Arenado I have seen from a 3rd baseman since the 78 World Series and Graig Nettles). A 6th inning 3 run homer from Josh Rutledge iced the game, and the Rockies had a series win LA. That would made 3 series wins in a row.
Heading to Arizona, the Rockies would not get the same great start they had been getting out of Franklin Morales, but unlike Nicasio, he battled through 5 innings (the high pitch count was similar to the situation that DLR had in his first win in the previous start at Coors where the outs took too many pitches) and then, after the offense got 3 in the 6th, was made the winner. The pen did solid work aside from Adam Ontovino’s first run yielded all year – including a 5 pitch inning by Tommy Kahnle. Final score 8-5. It was exactly what the Rox want to see from the back of the pen – Ontovino, Logan and Hawkins. So far on this trip they had scored 5,3,6 and now 8 runs.
Then on Tuesday night they got a 25 man win, as players like Chris Martin and Drew Stubbs proved to be life-savers to the team. Tyler Chatwood didn’t seem to be right from the beginning. Giving up 3 runs over the first 4 innings, he pushed into the 6th, loading the bases and with a 1-0 count was pulled due to a sore elbow. Key point in the game as the Rox just took a 4-3 lead. Chris Martin comes in, gets a groundout to Nolan Arenado that he throws to home to get the lead runner. 1 out. A strike-out of the PH and then a ground-out to 2nd. Chris Martin, the 25th man on the team, saved the day with a great job of pitching at a key moment. The game stayed 4-3 til Boone Logan gave up a towering homer off the foul-pole to tie it up. In past years the Rox would have found a way to go ahead and lose this game on the road to the terrible DBacks team. Instead, they got a big homer against a righty in the 9th from Drew Stubbs, his first of the year. Stubbs later in the 9th had a huge catch that prevented the tying run from scoring and helped preserve the win. When your 24 and 25th men on the team can get you big wins, it tells you this is a different team, a very different team than what we have seen since 2011. What is more, the team score 5 runs again on the road, which means this team is hitting differently on the road than in past years.
This is a different team than in past years. While today is the last day of April and it is still early, the team is at 8-8 on the road with one game left on their third road trip. They easily could have at least 3 more wins, considering leads blown in Miami, San Fran, and San Diego. They have made the opposition sweat most every victory (only the opening game of the year can really be considered a blow-out something we are used to seeing on the road a lot from the Rockies). Tonight is another tough pitching matchup, as Jordan Lyles takes his 3-0 record and 2.93 ERA against Josh Collmenter (1-2, 3.38). Collmenter against the Rockies has allowed only a .224 BA and an OPS of .684 in 15 games. He is a tough pitcher for the Rockies to face, even though he is only 2-1 with a 3.92 in those games (only 5 starts). But with a chance of a 5-1 road trip and a series sweep, this is the kind of game the Rockies have been winning and right now, you have to believe they will find a way to win.
So why have the Rox suddently become not only competitive on the road but solid offensively? I think there are four big reasons:
1) They have been getting big starts from guys like Lyles, Morales, and DLR (his last two road starts at least). If you can get a quality start (6 IP, 3ER or less) on the road, you give your team a chance to win.
2) The pen has been simply outstanding. Since Lopez was sent down they have been very good, and the swap of Bettis for Martin, one week in, looks like a smart move. Of course you don’t want to count on a guy like Martin, who is the #25 guy on the squad, but his big 96-97 fastball (at least the first night out) has been a bonus. The pen was expected to be an asset for the team. They are being used too much, which raises long-term concerns, but through the first month they have matched the pens in the NL West, which are pretty good in general.
3) The defense has, since the opening series in Miami, been very very good, not giving extra out and making key plays. The play of the bunt Friday night by Wilin Rosario to get a double-play saved the game at that point and the work of Nolan Arenado on Friday and Sunday saved big runs as well. But Nolan its an every night affair right now. And Tuesday night’s game in Arizona was saved by a very good catch by Stubbs. Every night its someone do something big with the glove.
4) Contributions from back-ups: one night its Brandon Barnes, the next its Josh Ruttledge with a 3-run homer, then its Pacheco with a key double, and Stubbs with a homer. Yes, some of these guys are playing above their heads (Barnes is not going to hit .333 with a .400+BABIP, but then again, he is not being asked as he was in Houston to play everyday, so maybe with better matchups he will be a key contributor all year long). While DJ is playing stellar D every night and hitting over .300 right now, having Josh Ruttledge and his big bat as an alternative gives the Rox extra strengths. This is a deep team, winning even as Michael Cuddyer is on the DL. There isn’t a lot of extra help on the farm from a positional player perspective – only Kyle Parker can be expected to make a key contribution this year. Tim Wheeler, who is off the 40 right now, had a great spring and is hitting .289/.896 with 4 homers so far this year, so he too might if a big injury happens be available. But right now, this is one of the best benches in the NL West.
5) The Offense – I have been complaining about the low pitch counts the Rox have been letting starters get by with, but it turns out, they are at the forefront of the change in hitting right now. Whereas a few years ago teams wanted 7 or 8 pitch ABs, with the wicked stuff so many starters have along with power arms in pens all over the league, there has been a change towards swinging at the 1st or 2nd pitch, getting their “get me over” pitch or fastballs, rather than facing wipeout stuff that pitchers have in 2 strike situations. The Rox have always struggled hitting on the road, but right now they are hitting .256 on the road, with a .702 OPS. That may not sound great but they have only been to one hitting park this year – Arizona, and have faced a lot of very good pitchers. What is more, on the 1st pitch, they are hitting nearly .400. So kudos to new hitting coach, Blake Doyle, who has this offense actually performing on the road.
Will they keep this up over the whole season? This team, if it can remain healthy, can certainly play .500 baseball on the road. They have survived the injury to Cuddy (and lets be honest, there is a big drop-off from Cuddy to Culberson). If Chatwood’s elbow is more serious than not, it means Nicasio will continue to be the #5 man in the rotation, and right now he simply cannot get out quality major league hitters more than 1 time a game. But having already taken on some of the toughest road venues for this team, of course they have to come back to West Coast twice more. Yes, .500 on the road is tough, but this team seems to be the best prepared to do it of any team they have had yet, and that makes staying up late watching those West Coast games worth the watching.