You never really know when a turning point happens. It can be clear in hindsight, but during the moment it might not be obvious. But if the Colorado Rockies continue to play good baseball in 2013 and reach the postseason, May 19, 2013 at about 3:30 p.m. could prove to be the exact moment when they made it clear that they were for real.
The moment in question? When Brandon Belt swung over the top of a Juan Nicasio slider to end a two on, two out threat in the sixth inning. That pitch, that game, and that series were Statements, with a capital "S." The pitch was a Statement from Nicasio that he deserves to stay in the big leagues. The game was a Statement that the Rockies can hit anyone, even the devilish Barry Zito. And the series was a Statement that the Rockies can beat good teams as well as lousy ones.
First let's talk about Nicasio. There's been a lot of chatter about how he needs a minor league refresher course. The critics point to a number of issues with his game: that he doesn't have an out pitch, that he can't work deep into games, that he doesn't stay in the strike zone. It's undeniable that he has had some struggles this year; he has frequently been unable to put hitters away early in counts and he has rarely seen the sixth inning. You aren't doing your bullpen or your team a whole lot of good if you're doing a five-and-dive every time out.
So with his major league job dangling by a thread, all Nicasio did was have his best start of the year, and possibly of his young career. Six innings pitched, three hits, five K's, and only one walk. His final pitch of the game was the aforementioned slider, an 82 mile-per-hour bender that dove in onback foot.
In the context of the game, that pitch was insanely important. The Rockies were holding a three-nil lead, but as we saw from last Thursday's debacle, leads against the Giants tend to evaporate. The inning should have been over already, as Josh Rutledge let a routine grounder go right through the wickets. So instead of being safely in the dugout sipping Gatorade, Juan had to face the tying run at the plate, who was getting his third look at him. It was crunch time.
And, well, we all know what happened. Nicasio didn't shrink away from the pressure; instead he threw a perfect pitch. He still needs to show that he can consistently command his secondary pitches (although apparently he was working in a new offering in this game, a two-seam fastball with slightly different movement from his four-seamer). But he's made a definitive statement about his mental toughness: it's off the charts.
The Rockies' offense as a whole made a statement during this game as well. Barry Zito's ownage of the Rockies has been one of the most perplexing and annoying trends in recent memory. Why would a junk-baller with an 83 mile-per-hour fastball dominate the Rockies to the tune of a 2.47 ERA? And why does he stink against everyone else? And why does he excel at Coors Field of all places, where his repertoire should be even more vulnerable? It's mind-boggling.
Despite the history, the Rockies put together quality at-bat after quality at-bat, making Zito work, waiting for pitches in the zone instead of flailing at whatever slop he threw out there. The Rox knocked line drives all over the yard, and after the dust settled from Troy Tulowitzki's two-run single, the Rockies had put up a five spot against Zito. Whatever dark witchcraft Zito had been using in previous starts was not effective on Sunday.
Finally, this series as a whole feels a whole lot like a turning point. After Thursday's botch job (blowing a six-run lead, opening day starter Jhoulys Chacin getting lit up, recording one hit after the third inning, etc.), it would be conceivable that the Rockies would enter a tailspin. They had already lost several series in a row, giving back much of their April gains. With the Giants and the Diamondbacks coming to town, if the Rockies didn't get their act together soon they could have found themselves in a seriously dark place.
But while Friday wasn't pretty, they managed to come out on top in an old-school Coors Field slugfest. Rafael Betancourt's dominating three-K save to preserve the 10-9 victory was a much-needed shot in the arm. Saturday's blowout helped calm the frayed nerves from the last two games. And Sunday was just a methodical, business-like takedown. It was the kind of game really good teams have.
Perhaps I'm over-thinking this. Maybe this nice three-game stretch is just that: a nice stretch. Maybe the D-Backs come in here and Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Montero blast eight homers and the Rockies get over matched and the Giants series becomes just a memory. Maybe they go 29-89 the rest of the season and fulfill Keith Law's ridiculous prediction. But it doesn't feel like that's going to happen; it feels like the Rockies are here to win games this year. And if they continue doing so, we might look back on this series as the point when everything came together.