How do you explain a team that finished last season 25 games under .500 and 35 games out of first suddenly sitting atop the National League West standings in August after trading in their Mile-High ERA for the third best mark in the league at 3.15? The Apocalypse? 2020? Sorcery?
LoDo Magic has always been part of the Rockies story. With the fans removed from the equation, it’s a shade easier to isolate the variables and figure out what accounts for the quick start to a short season — a season that has seen unequivocal success for the purple pinstriped players in all but one game — Friday’s home opener.
Opening Day at Coors Field Friday had the flavor of a post-apocalyptic ghost town, complete with cardboard cutouts and a cheer-track to make fans and players alike feel something other than the emptiness of pandemic ballparks.
“It’s different without the fans, for sure,” said right fielder Charlie Blackmon before the home opener. “I miss the fans being there. It’s a very intimate game now. I can tell Nolan (Arenado, across the diamond at third base), ‘Hey, great job!’ when he makes a good play, and he can hear me. That’s really weird. It’s kind of just you and your teammates, and you feel like you’re playing for your teammates a lot more.”
It’s a unique take on baseball that hardly anyone to ever play the game at any level has ever experienced. What is sport without its spectators? Blackmon answered a first inning, two-run shot into the second deck in right to spark the Rockies in the home opener, and the team outpaced the Padres until the final frame, when closer Wade Davis took the mound with a 5-4 lead to protect.
It had been Rockies baseball at its best to get that far — with John Gray allowing just four hits and two earned runs over 5 1/3 innings to accompany multiple hit games for Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Ryan McMahon and Trevor Story, who offered a seventh inning insurance homer to the opposite field, proving that if the Rockies bomb Blake Street and there’s no one there to hear it — or cheer it — the runs still make a sound.
Gray and the starting staff have been among the surprise highlights for the 2020 Rockies, and their collective low-altitude 2.44 ERA is second only to the Cubs in all of baseball. German Marquez, Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela had not allowed more than two runs in any of the first eight games, when off days enabled them to use a four-man rotation. Chi Chi Gonzalez took the fifth starter’s spot on Monday and gave up three runs in three innings before the bullpen came on to secure the win.
“We're playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Gray said Friday, noting the rotation hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves yet. “We know the capability that we have as a starting staff and we're wearing that on our sleeve.We're fine being snakes in the grass and not knowing that we're there until we bite you.”
The bullpen has been solid, but as Opening Day in Denver proved, the combination of Colorado lumber and the Blake Street bullpen is so often the source of LoDo Magic. Davis, the Rockies $17 million closer who posted an 8.65 ERA last season, got two quick outs in the ninth, then yielded a game-tying solo shot, a pair of walks, and a three-run homer to lose the lead set up a familiarly dramatic bottom of the ninth.
In years past, with the fans urging them on, the Rockies might have pulled a pinstriped rabbit from their cap and found a way to put an exclamation point on a walk-off win to launch the season’s first game at 20th and Blake. They found a pair of runs to put the tying run at third with the bases loaded and two outs before Sam Hilliard popped to center to end the rally.
Davis was on the 10-day disabled list with a right shoulder strain the next day, and last season’s best reliever, Scott Oberg, saw his season likely come to an end as he was transferred to the 45-day disabled list with blood clots in his right arm. Just that quickly, the bullpen turned from a source of strength and optimism to a looming question mark.
In a 60-game season — 102 games shorter than normal — the fickle winds of fortune can flip on a dime. Just ask the Marlins, who lost 18 players and a week of games to COVID-19 after the opening weekend, or the Cardinals who had seven players go down to the virus days later, causing their own run of canceled games.
“It's definitely cause for concern when you cancel games,” Story said. “That's never a good thing. But the first thing that comes to mind is the health of the players and the coaches and everyone involved.”
The Rockies played their first home games with rumors floating that the season could end in a matter of days if further outbreaks hit the league, but the players are hopeful they can see the season through and provide a measure of hope for a country yearning for normalcy.
"We've been given an opportunity to hit the reset button," said Derek Jeter, CEO of the Marlins, in a Zoom call Monday. "I hope people look at what happened to us and use that as a warning to see how quickly this is able to spread if you're not following the protocols 100 percent."
For the Rockies, reversals of fortune are a familiar formula with a long pedigree. Back in the early days of Coors Field, failed-geologist-turned-brewpub-owner John Hickenlooper tried to rally the other LoDo pub owners to chip in for a “Fireman’s Fund” to help the Rockies get better relief pitchers.
“They had all these great home run hitters, but they didn’t have any pitchers,” Hickenlooper told me years later, lamenting the fact that without dependable relievers, Rockies games were going on forever and keeping fans from spilling out of the ballpark and into the neighborhood bars and restaurants. “We were going to try and raise $150,000 a year and contribute it towards getting a top closer, a good relief pitcher to get those games over with so people could get out of the stadium and enjoy their lives.”
These days $150,000 a year wouldn’t even get you a closer with a 16.88 ERA, which, not coincidentally, is Davis’ mark after three games.
But as in the early days, there’s little fans wouldn’t do right now to enjoy life inside Coors Field, where even the blowouts can raise your blood pressure in synch with the surging decibel level.
Take Davis out of the picture, and the Rockies have six of their eight relievers sporting an ERA of 3.13 or lower — and five of those are under 2.00. Jairo Diaz got the call to close Monday’s series opener with the Giants, earning the moniker of “High-Wire Jairo” as he gave up his first two runs of the season (one earned) on two hits in the ninth to squeak by with a one-run win and his second save in as many days.
In a season of “Survivor Baseball,” a patchwork pen on a relatively healthy club — no position players are currently injured — could provide the staying power to be the last team standing when hopes of a Rocktober return are kindled in Colorado.
The lineup is heating up, building on an average 4.2 runs per game in their 4-1 road trip to score 7.25 runs a game on their 3-1 homestand through Monday. Among the welcome perks in the lineup has been a resurgent Daniel Murphy, who went 4-for-4 with a homer Sunday and is hitting .346 after a hand injury induced a sub-par 2019 season, and former Rockies nemesis Matt Kemp, who has made four starts as designated hitter — will we ever see pitchers hit again? — going 6-for-17 (.353) with a pair of homers, a double, and seven RBIs for the team he terrorized for years from the visiting dugout.
“I’ve had a lot of success here,” Kemp told the Planet after blasting his first homer as a Rockie in Saturday’s win. “To be in a lineup this deep, it’s got a lot of pop, it can do some damage, and it’s fun to be a part of it.”
Kemp – a three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner – was just as impressed with the Rockies unparalleled defensive play, which was on display for the cardboard cutouts perched on the edge of their seats throughout the homestand.
“Defensively, what those guys did today on the defensive side, I’ve never seen anything like it, Story and Nolan,” Kemp said Saturday. “It’s fun to watch.”
Arenado keeps raising the bar, running 111 feet into foul territory to make a sliding over the shoulder catch to inspire the crowd in his dugout.
“You trust your instinct, try to make a play, and I was lucky to make one there,” Arenado told the Planet. “Lately offensively I haven’t really been doing it, but defensively I have, and that keeps me motivated, knowing I can help.”
After hitting too many hard balls at Padres outfielders, he took his frustration out on San Francisco Monday, hitting one where no Giant could reach, deep into the empty left field bleachers, to spark a five-run rally in the sixth and propel the Rockies to a 7-6 victory.
The homer also moved him past Carlos Gonzales for fourth on the Rockies all-time home run list with 228.
“He’s staying the course, swinging at strikes, taking balls, and eventually his swing will take over,” manager Bud Black told the Planet after Arenado went deep, affirming a prediction he’d made earlier in the day and summarizing the state of the Rockies as they hit the 10-game mark in 2020.“It’s just a matter of time. It just takes a couple of knocks and just feeling good in the box.”