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Colorado Rockies season in review: A tale of two games

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The 2017 Rockies had one big up followed by one big down

The experience of following the 2017 Rockies was defined by emotional contradiction. On the one hand, the team surpassed expectations. “The road to 100” became a worn out maxim for fans convinced of the team’s futility from about 2011 to 2016. But in 2017, fans could have turned “the road to 100” into a positive. As late as June 23, the Rockies had a winning percentage that, if translated to a 162 game season, would mean a 100-win season. “On pace for” arguments shouldn’t be taken too seriously because they assume no change in an environment full of it. But the point remains: After playing 47 percent of the season, a Rockies fan could quip that the team was on pace for 100 wins, and they’d be right.

On the other hand, the 2017 Rockies failed to fulfill their objectives. This is evident in a couple of ways, but we end up in the same place regardless. The Rockies set a high bar for themselves early in the season. Serious or not, any expression or recollection of that 100-win pace basically set the team up for failure. But the 2017 Rockies shouldn’t be judged harshly for not winning 100 games, nor should the fact that they didn’t even come close leave any trace of bitterness for fans. Baseball is a series of corrections, after all. Instead, the how and why of their fall from that lofty June pace tells the more precise story. And that story can’t be told without drilling into the how and why of their earlier than expected ascent. Together, we get a view of a team and future outlook that is both flawed and promising.

No two games encapsulate the highs and lows of the Rockies season, as well as the forces behind them, better than subsequent Sundays in June, the 18th and 25th. On June 18, Nolan Arenado hit a three-run walk-off home run that completed a cycle and resulted in a minor head wound that left Arenado jubilant and harmlessly bloody. The game the following Sunday was a depressing contrast. The Rockies blew a game on the road in embarrassing fashion. A deep look at these games and their surrounding context help us understand the contradictions of the 2017 season and where it leaves the team going forward.

Prologue

Superlatives weren’t hard to come by early in the season. On May 10, the Rockies beat the Cubs 3-0 at Coors Field, improving their record to 22-13. It was the best record the Rockies had ever had through 35 games. They won the next game, too, which meant that it was the best record the Rockies had ever had through 36 games. While they lost the next two, they still kept the best record through 37 and 38 games. They won the next three, securing the best start in franchise history through 39, 40, and 41 games—you get the idea.

The Rockies were a great team through its first 71 games, but they were great in an unexpected way. Rather than a starting rotation led by Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson, rookies Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela were the most important starting pitchers. Gray only started three games due to injury. Anderson was injured as well, but he was ineffective before that. Freeland and Senzatela, on the other hand, combined to start 28 games. The Rockies went 20-8 in those starts. The team won 45 games in its first 71, and 44% of those wins came in games started by either Freeland or Senzatela.

Two stars, Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, helped the offense along, but they had a vanishingly small supporting cast. Trevor Story had trouble making contact, and the gap power DJ LeMahieu displayed in 2016 disappeared. Ian Desmond wasn’t good when he wasn’t injured. The Rockies had hoped to get contributions from two young players, David Dahl and Tom Murphy, but both of them were on the shelf with injuries. The support, instead, came primarily from Mark Reynolds and Gerardo Parra—a minor-league free agent and 2016’s worst position player. But the team just kept winning.

The bullpen was responsible for holding on to a lot of those wins. Chris Rusin was excellent as expected, Mike Dunn proved the worth of his hefty reliever contract, and even Scott Oberg was showing up. Most notably, newly signed closer Greg Holland earned the save in his first 23 chances. He blew his first save on June 15, but the Rockies came back to win anyway. That’s just how the season was going.

June 18

The Rockies won the first three games against San Francisco ahead of the series finale on June 18. Nobody wanted the Rockies to lose, but given where the team was, it wouldn’t have ruined anybody’s day, especially since the Rockies handed the ball to Tyler Chatwood to start. Nothing against Chatwood, but he was firmly a part of the back-end of the rotation by mid-June. But it’s not like the Giants countered with 2009 Matt Cain. They sent Ty Blach to the mound.

The Rockies and Giants traded zeros through the first four innings. The Rockies managed just four hits in the first five innings, and they stranded four baserunners. The first hit came in the first, when Nolan Arenado hit a two-out triple. He reached base again in the fourth inning with a single, which put him halfway to the cycle, though he was left on third base again. The Giants got to Chatwood in the fourth, scoring two on a Brandon Crawford home run. Chatwood was pitching pretty well overall, but the offense was sputtering. Half-way through, it didn’t really look like it was going to be the Rockies day. But, like I said, that wouldn’t have been so bad, all things considered.

But things turned around in the later innings. Arenado made it three-fourths of the way to the cycle with a double in the sixth inning. This one scored DJ LeMahieu, which cut the Giants’ lead in half. Rusin shut down the Giants in the seventh, and in the bottom half of the inning, the Rockies powered back to take the lead with two solo home runs courtesy of Trevor Story and Pat Valaika. With the Rockies up 3-2 after seven, it sure looked like they were going to do that thing they’d been doing all season: Pitch well and score just enough. They looked to steal a win during a game it felt like they were going to lose.

But then, the bullpen started to blow it. Jake McGee entered in the ninth inning in a save situation. To that point, he had a 1.57 ERA in 2823 innings pitched. The inning started with an out, but it quickly got away from McGee. Gorkys Hernandez singled and Hunter Pence, who moonlights as a middle school basketball coach, homered to give the Giants the lead. Alright. Turns out that the idea that “a loss won’t ruin anybody’s day” is contextual and can absolutely ruin a day if the game is lost in the ninth inning against the Giants. The SFers even scored again, making it 5-3.

The Giants brought in their closer Mark Melancon to close out the game. After recording one out, Raimel Tapia, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ LeMahieu hit consecutive singles, making it a 5-4 game. And then, with two on and one out, Arenado hit a walk-off home run to give the Rockies the win.

It wasn’t just the walk-off win though. That single hit and what happened after was loaded with symbolism and unforgettable imagery. First of all, the home run gave Arenado the cycle. One thing we often forget about hitting for the cycle is that it’s just a combination of four different hits that’s an accomplishment in randomness more than prowess. There’s no reason for it to be a thing. But it is a thing, and finishing it off with a walk-off home run is quite the way to go about it. Next, during the celebratory dogpiling, Arenado caught a helmet above his left eye, leaving him to continue celebrating like a bloodied madman. It really was one of the greatest moments in Rockies history—we even put it on a shirt. And finally, for the team, the win pushed the Rockies to a full 20 games above .500. Round-number bias be damned, it was pretty awesome to see the Rockies hit that mark.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The excitement and symbolic heft of this win masked the trouble with the 2017 Rockies. First, the offense was mostly flaccid. Aside from Arenado’s first inning triple that the Rockies couldn’t cash in for a run, the team only had three singles through the first five innings against Ty Blach. Arenado drove in the LeMahieu, who walked, in the sixth inning for the Rockies’ first run. But with a runner on second and nobody out, the Rockies went down quietly and settled for one run. Solo home runs from Trevor Story and the unlikely Pat Valaika in the seventh inning gave the Rockies a one-run lead. They found themselves in a lot of games like that early, but the good record in one-run games reveal more about the team’s inability to score than about close-game mettle.

Dramatic walk-off home runs also have a way of erasing why the Rockies were even batting in the bottom of the ninth. Remember, it was due to a bullpen meltdown in a low scoring game. The Rockies had one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2017, but the line between blowing a game and simply giving up some runs in garbage time all goes back to whether or not the offense is scoring. When the offense isn’t scoring and the team is losing, and that would be the theme after this game, the entire team looks worse—every mistake is magnified.

Interlude

The Rockies went 20 games above .500 with an all-time win. But it was really hard as a fan to ignore that spectral warning: “This can’t last.” Indeed, the week of games leading up to the next Sunday was rough for the Rockies.

The first game after the dramatic walk-off, however, ended well, and in a fashion eerily similar to what happened on June 18. The Rockies’ offense managed to score just two runs through the first seven innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But then, clinging to a 2-1 lead in the eighth, the D-backs scored two runs to take an equally slim 3-2 lead. The Rockies came back in the bottom of the eighth. Arenado tripled in two runs to give the Rockies their one-run lead back, and Holland pitched an undramatic ninth inning to give the Rockies the win. It was a script lifted from the previous Sunday. The offense sputtered, the pitching held it down, the bullpen couldn’t hang on to the slim lead, and the Rockies’ star saved the day. The Rockies were 21 games above .500 after this one. It was the best record the Rockies had all season.

That win signaled the end of the Rockies’ Faustian bargain. On June 21, the Diamondbacks scored 10 runs in the fourth inning as the Rockies lost in embarrassing fashion. The D-backs spread out their runs the next day, but they still had a 9-1 lead after four innings. That was another easy win for Arizona. The Rockies traveled to Los Angeles for three against the Dodgers after that. Freeland got rocked in the first game, and Clayton Kershaw and three relievers shut out the Rockies in game two.

The four game losing streak was the longest of the season up to that point. It was the Rockies first true rough patch, but there was no telling how rough it would be. Salvaging one game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles would have done a lot to minimize it.

Sunday, June 25

The Sunday finale against the Dodgers pit Tyler Anderson against Brandon McCarthy. Anderson was making his first start since the end of May; he was on the disabled list due to knee inflammation. Getting Anderson back and fully healthy, it was widely assumed, would really help the Rockies staff recover from the mini-losing streak they were on.

It started out extremely well. The Rockies scored five runs in the first three innings against McCarthy. But like the games a week before, the runs scored didn’t suggest an offense come back to life. The Rockies put runners on the corners in the second after a walk, a couple of wild pitches, and another walk. Another wild pitch scored the Rockies first run, and two singles gave the Rockies an early 3-0 lead. The Rockies scored two more in the third inning with another single and an RBI groundout. The Rockies took a 5-0 lead without hitting an extra-base hit, but that didn’t matter that much at the time. That’s how baseball works, and the Rockies needed a win however they could get it.

The Dodgers nearly tied the game in the bottom of the third. Anderson gave up two two-run home runs, and, worst of all, he re-aggravated his knee while doing so. Bud Black removed him from the game and went to the bullpen. Anderson wouldn’t pitch in the majors again until September.

The Rockies extended their lead to 6-4 in the fifth, and a combination of Jordan Lyles, Scott Oberg, and Jake McGee kept the Dodgers off the board until the seventh. The game looked an awful lot like many of the Rockies’ wins from earlier in the season—just asking a little bit more from the rock solid bullpen.

The seventh and eighth innings, however, were the two worst half innings of the entire Colorado Rockies’ season.

These innings were undeniably a bullpen meltdown. The bullpen was a strength of the 2017 Rockies, so it’s not like the laborious path to recording those six outs encapsulates the season for that reason. But they represent the story of the Rockies season as a whole. Things were looking good for good reasons, but there were other good reasons to believe it wasn’t going to last.

McGee began the seventh. He allowed a single and a double to put runners on second and third, but those were surrounded by a couple of outs. Black went to Adam Ottavino to record the final out of the inning. Ottavino had been good, but not quite dominant, in the role of set-up man to that point. He had struck out 33 batters and walked 16 in 2613 innings. And with just one blown save, 18 holds, and a 3.08 ERA in 29 games, Ottavino was playing his role.

But Otto didn’t have it on June 25th. First up was Austin Barnes, whom Ottavino walked. That loaded the bases, but there were still two outs. The next batter up was Yasmani Grandal. And Ottavino struck him out!

Except, before striking him out, he threw two wild pitches, and those two wild pitches scored three runs. The Dodgers outdid the Rockies limp run-scoring and took a 7-6 led without a batter recording an RBI. Ottavino threw just 5 of his 12 pitches for strikes. Luckily, the Rockies were still within striking distance.

The Rockies didn’t score in the top of the eighth, but that failure pales in comparison to what happened in the bottom half of the inning. Black brought Ottavino back out. Because he only threw 12 pitches, and because the Rockies were pitching a bullpen game due to Anderson’s injury, the move made some sense. But Ottavino clearly did not have his command, or much else. The inning went like this:

Double
Lineout
Walk
Wild pitch (run scores)
Stolen base (second to third)
Strikeout
Wild pitch (run scores)
Walk
Home run (two runs score)
Single

Now, you might be asking at what point in the sequence above Black removed Ottavino from the game. The answer is that he didn’t. In the most confounding decision Black made all season, he basically hung a struggling pitcher out to dry. A pitcher who had allowed five runs to score on wild pitches before he allowed a crushing two-run home run. CBS Sports rightly called it a “spectacular meltdown,” and Purple Row’s Hayden Ringer justifiably asked whether or not it would ruin Ottavino’s season. When it was all said and done, Ottavino, as if he were Andrew Miller striking fools out in the playoffs, had thrown 48 pitches across two innings.

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

After Black mercifully removed Ottavino, Greg Holland gave up an RBI double to Kenley Jansen—a hit that turned out to be only the second most upsetting extra base hit a reliever hit against the Rockies during 2017—and finally recorded the third out. The Dodgers won 12-6. It was the most dispiriting game of the regular season.

Epilogue

The week between June 18 and June 25 was the Rockies’ season in a nutshell. After the improbable late wins against the Giants and Diamondbacks, the Rockies were 21 games above .500, the best they’ve been since 2010. And it’s not like it was a small sample. It was nearly half a season’s worth of baseball. The Rockies went 40-49 after that though—the fifth worst record in the National League. The loss against the Dodgers on June 25 was simply the worst of it. The club finished 87-75. They were neither as good as they played over their first 73 games, nor as bad as they were over their final 89. This tale of two games was the critical juncture that divided the Rockies’ two seasons—until it all came down to the one Wild Card game the team lost. Taken together, these games give us a good look at where the Rockies are right now.

The Rockies are flawed. First, the mostly absent offense evident in the games analyzed above was a season-long concern, even when the Rockies were winning. Aside from Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, the Rockies succeeded early in the season due to contributions from unlikely places—Gerardo Parra and Mark Reynolds, in particular. DJ LeMahieu returned to being a good but not great hitter, the team didn’t get much at all on offense from Trevor Story, and 2017 Ian Desmond played the part of 2016 Gerardo Parra.

Second, the pitching staff also isn’t as steady as it seemed at first, as was evident on June 25. Tyler Anderson had a breakout rookie season in 2016, but for the first five months of the season, Anderson was either injured or ineffective. He wasn’t the only one missing either. When Anderson had to leave the game on June 25, Jon Gray had only pitched three games. For different reasons, they both followed up their rookie seasons in less than ideal ways.

Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, and Germán Márquez will have high expectations for 2018, and that’s reasonable enough given the impressive seasons they had. But it’s even more reasonable to be cautions. Having a stable of young pitchers is great, but injuries and steps back are always lurking, and any team relying on young pitchers will always walk a tightrope if it can’t pull together an offense to back it up. For evidence of this, look at what happened to the Mets’ super rotation of just two years ago.

But the Rockies are also promising. Regarding that pitching, the Rockies can absorb some injury and sophomore slumps because they have a decent amount of depth. Jeff Hoffman didn’t have a great 2017, but he’s shown flashes of figuring out how to get major leaguers out. And prospects like Yency Almonte and Ryan Castellani aren’t far from the majors.

Finally, the Rockies have a handful of high potential offensive players capable of making dramatic wins like the one on June 18th unnecessary and making depressing losses like the one on June 25th a little more palatable. There’s no guarantee that promise will be fulfilled, but there’s at least something to grab on to.

Every baseball season comes with its ups and downs. The 2017 Rockies just happened to have one big up and followed by one big down. It was as emotionally exhilarating as it was exhausting. We know the team has flaws. We know they have promise. We just don’t know which one will carry the next story.