With the cruelest month securely sentenced to the rearview mirror, Rockies fans can hold out hope that things can only get better. And give thanks to math — the only thing keeping the Rockies from being mathematically eliminated by the end of April.
For 29 years, the Rockies have been at their best when they’ve been unpredictable — with a third-year postseason appearance in 1995, their 21-of-22 winning stretch to make the World Series in 2007, and their 8-5 victory over the reigning World Series Champion Dodgers to open the season at home on April Fool’s Day.
The predictable is a grim reality to bear, as the Rockies and their fans can confirm ad nauseum. The predictable means battling to escape the cellar after 20 seasons finishing last or second to last in their division, or fighting for .500, a plateau they’ve reached in less than a third of their 28 previous campaigns.
A month ago, then Rockies Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Greg Feasel talked with the Daily Planet about the greatest challenges of getting ready for this season in the midst of a lingering pandemic.
“The unknown, and the changes,” Feasel told the Planet on the eve of Opening Day. “As everything changes, one day, one week, everything looks this way, and then next week, that all changes. You've really got to be able to be flexible.”
Last Monday the unknown bit back as Feasel was elevated to fill an 11-year vacancy in the office of president at the same time that general manager Jeff Bridich was demoted to the ranks of the unemployed.
“Only time will tell,” pitcher Kyle Freeland told the Planet regarding whether the club’s “mutual” decision to part ways with Bridich could be seen as a sign of a commitment to win — a commitment called into question both by Nolan Arenado in the two losing seasons since signing his contract extension two years ago, and questioned again after Bridich and team owner Dick Monfort traded the future Hall-of-Famer in the prime of his career. “Our number one goal as a big league club is to do whatever it takes to win a ballgame. If you're a big leaguer and you don't have that mentality, you probably aren't gonna last very long in this game, or you're going to be replaced very quickly.”
Bridich didn’t last long — losing his job three-and-a-half weeks into the season. The replacement part may not be so quick. The Rockies are rolling with a GM-by-committee for now, and four days after showing Bridich the door, an interim appointment has yet to be announced.
“From the time I got here, Dick and Jeff have always been about trying to put the best team on the field and trying to compete with other teams in our division and trying to do that each and every day, each and every week, month, year,” manager Bud Black told the Planet. “That has never stopped.”
It never really worked for Monfort and Bridich, who leave the Rockies yearning for more of the unexpected. They were projected to lose 100 games and to dwell in the cellar in a division where the other four teams are each playing better than .500 through Thursday. Fans have been calling for Bridich’s firing while staying away in droves. The 7,120 fans watching the Rockies beat the Astros in the mid-April snow was the lowest attendance ever, with only 33.33 percent of the 21,363 available socially distanced seats sold, as compared to the previous low of 18,119 in September 2005, or 36.13 percent of their full capacity of 50,144.
Unfortunately, Colorado can’t seem to escape external expectations, starting the season at 9-16 through Thursday for a .360 winning percentage, on pace for 104 losses. And while they’ve played well in most of their games, losing by narrow margins, they’re losing nonetheless, and all too often for a team that has needed every game on the schedule and then some to secure past Wild Card playoff berths.
“They all count, right, and I’m not trying to say that it doesn't matter that we're off to a bad start,” Charlie Blackmon told the Planet, echoing the “lot-of-baseball-left” chorus sung up and down the roster. “It's still so early. It's definitely something we can overcome. It's gonna be early for another month, and I certainly don't expect to let games slip away from us in a month's time like we have early in the season.”
As if losing Arenado’s bat to the Cardinals wasn’t enough, Blackmon’s bat had gone missing to the tune of a .153 average through the first 17 games of the season before losing his hold on the clean-up spot in the lineup last week.
“Where Chuck is right now, dropping him down a couple spots could help him,” Black said of the lineup tweak. “Let him exhale a little bit out of that four-hole, and I suspect that when Charlie starts hitting, he'll move back up in the lineup.”
But Blackmon has never hit well batting clean-up. He is a .302 career hitter through Thursday, but is only a .201 hitter when batting fourth, 49 points lower than his career numbers in any other spot in the lineup.
Yes, the club has floundered on the road, opening the season 1-9 while being outscored 58-24 away from home, through Thursday. In Colorado, however, they are 8-7, outscoring opponents 89-65 with a high-altitude home ERA of 3.87, compared to their road mark of 6.04.
“We're comfortable here,” Black told the Planet after securing a winning mark at home for the first month. “We know how the park plays, the conditions. Our pitching staff understands what we need to do here. It sets a great tone for us the rest of the way.”
Perhaps no one has been more comfortable than Jon Gray, who is 3-0 with a 1.85 ERA in four Coors Field starts, nearly five runs lower than his road ERA. He told the Planet his “ability to have fun out there” has been key to his rekindled success this season.
“Don’t freak out so much over the results,” Gray explained. “I mean, we're playing a game. I want to be the best I can, but I'm happy regardless.”
It can be a refreshing attitude, or it can be evidence of how comfortable Colorado has become for a culture of mediocrity. Still, Gray wouldn’t be the first pitcher to find happiness in the last year of his contract. A missing general manager could be the best thing to hit Colorado come the trade deadline, when Gray and Trevor Story will be tempting trade bait given the free agent status awaiting each at season’s end. Story’s grand slam Sunday sealed the win for Gray and the winning home April for the Rockies.
“That's the spot that everyone wants to be in,” Story told the Planet Sunday, referring not to his “walk year,” but to walking to the plate with the bases loaded and the game on the line. “You gotta want to be in that spot to succeed. I tried to just relax, and once I connected, it was just pure joy.”
For nearly three decades, Colorado has mustered more than its share of excitement for fans who can appreciate the joy of a journey for a team too often going nowhere. Relish it while you can.