Maybe it started in “Summer Camp,” when the Rockies were limited to split-squad games. The Rockies are still playing with a split personality, collapsing on the wrong end of a 23-5 loss at home to the Giants on one hand, and days later becoming the first team to win a series against the Dodgers this season.
The rubber game against the Dodgers came at the 40-game mark of the 60-game season, with the Rockies climbing back to .500 and staying in the playoff hunt — moving into position for the seventh of eight playoff seeds if the playoffs ended Sunday. They didn’t play their best baseball to clinch the series, but they played better than the best team in baseball.
“We’re in September right now, so every game is important, every win is important,” Matt Kemp told the Daily Planet Sunday night. “We know what we’re up against. We know where we’re sitting in the standings. It’s time to get hot and get things going.”
Kemp is one of the newest Rockies — acquired on July 4 to help fill the shoes of Ian Desmond, who opted out of the season days before to focus on his family and his community as the fight for racial justice took center stage this summer.
All three games in L.A. were back-and-forth affairs, with the lead changing throughout the series, most notably when Rockies centerfielder Kevin Pillar hit a grand slam Friday night to take the lead in the late innings, only to lose it moments later as the Dodgers surged back to claim victory in the opener.
The Rockies were in the middle of a five-game stretch during which every game seemed a turning point to define the season. The 23-5 loss to the Giants looked like a death knell. All season, fans had been begging for the Rockies pitching and its lineup to synch up in the same game, and — careful what you wish for — they finally did, collapsing in tandem.
The next night, they battled back from a 6-1 deficit to win 9-6, sparked by Pillar, their newest newcomer, who made a spectacular, leaping, homer-stealing snare at the centerfield fence in the seventh and knocked a two-run triple a half inning later to pace the comeback.
The Rockies started a season-defining road trip in L.A. Friday having not won a series there in over two years. They had lost 23 of the last 27 tilts between the two teams, and if past proved to be precedent, they were poised to see their season buried in Chavez Ravine. Pillar’s slam changed the narrative, giving him what he called a “top three” career moment, but ultimately the song remained the same.
“Unfortunately, it was kind of short-lived,” Pillar said of his big knock just three games into his Rockies career after arriving in an Aug. 31 deadline trade. “But the excitement from the guys in the dugout, living it — this team cares, there’s a lot of passion.”
Clint Hurdle was fond of pointing out that, “This isn’t the ‘Try-Hard’ League,” noting that you don’t get awards for effort in Major League Baseball. But baseball’s greatest honor is its Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the player who best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.
The Rockies have nominated Desmond, a player who never suited up for the season, and on Roberto Clemente Day (Wednesday) Desmond will be recognized for the unprecedented example of skipping the season to focus his efforts on social justice issues in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida.
So while the Rockies do care about character, passion, and effort, they are looking for results to propel them back into Rocktober. They delivered the results Saturday and Sunday, battling “dem bums” in two hard-fought victories to reverse their own legacy of futility in L.A. and emerge as the only team to top the Dodgers in a series this season.
Things turned in the top of the ninth Saturday, as the Rockies broke a 2-2 deadlock with textbook small ball culminating in a big base hit from Nolan Arenado and a pair of insurance runs plated by his cousin Josh Fuentes.
Though Nolan’s not new, he’s sporting a new look he doesn’t much care for, boasting the lowest season average of his career at .260 through Monday’s game, 33 points below his career average. He’s hitting .203 on the road, .196 with runners in scoring position, has yet to homer on the road, and is falling short of his self-imposed standards of excellence.
But after back-to-back singles from Raimel Tapia and Trevor Story to open Saturday’s final frame, Nolan hit an opposite-field single to give the Rockies the go-ahead run en route to a 5-2 victory. The emotion from Nolan didn’t come out in a fist pump or a triumphant leap, but in a soft smile of satisfaction as a weight fell from his shoulders while he stood on first base watching the scoreboard roll in the Rockies’ favor.
A half hour later he couldn’t help but laugh as he explained what he was feeling to the Planet.
“A little relief that I actually got a hit against them,” Arenado said. “I was just happy to do it in that situation. My at-bats have been poor, and I’m just trying to grind it out. I’m just going to continue to work and try to figure it out. You just got to fight to the end.
“It’s great playing with guys like we’ve got on this team. They keep you motivated, they keep you fired up. I don’t want to let them down. I still got a lot of work to do. I know what feels right, and I haven’t felt that yet. But it felt really good to help the team win there and play a part.”
All that was left was for the relievers to hang on and secure the win, rarely an easy task for the Blake Street Bullpen. But Daniel Bard, “The Comeback Kid,” earned his fifth and sixth saves in as many chances Saturday and Sunday to turn the tide and give the Rockies reason to believe in a return to Rocktober.
Bard hadn’t earned a save since 2011 — and hadn’t pitched an inning in the big leagues since 2013, when he finished the season with a 9.00 ERA and a case of what he calls “the yips,” a lack of control that saw him walk 45 and hit eight batters in his last 59 2/3 innings in the Majors.
Today he’s one of Colorado’s most dependable relievers, with a 3.50 ERA in 18 appearances, stepping into a closer’s role that has been a high-wire act for most of the season.
“The bullpen was so responsible for our good start,” manager Bud Black told the Planet Sunday. “And we’ve seen good performances in and out over the last couple weeks. When guys pitch well, we’re probably going to win. When guys out of the bullpen have some trouble, it usually results in a loss or not a great outcome.”
Rebuilding that bullpen on the fly has been a gargantuan challenge as the Rockies lost Wade Davis, Scott Oberg, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw — the $37.5 million core of late inning relievers — between the last game played in Spring Training and the home opener on July 31. In their place are Bard, Yhency Almonte, trading deadline acquisition Mychael Givens, and Carlos Estevez, making a combined $5.4 million.
“I’d like to think we have the chance to put some things together going into our last 20 games,” Black told the Planet Sunday. “I still think there’s room for improvement in all areas. Just the consistency of everything, our at bats, our pitching. We gotta put it all together.”
Black noted the Rockies’ long history of playing their best baseball immediately after some of their most heartbreaking losses. They opened a critical series with the Padres Monday by losing 1-0 on a walk off double in the bottom of the ninth, and for a Rockies team whose identity remains a work in progress, the sense of urgency each loss imposes on their collective psyche needs to be a catalyst to push them two steps forward for every step back as they seek their third post season in four years.
“That’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of about this team, is our fight, our punch-back,” Story told the Planet after Monday’s loss in San Diego. “It’s not easy to keep punching, but we’ve been doing that. This is another time that we get to go out there and show what kind of team we are. I think it’s special. It builds character as a team. It builds that moxie. That’s how it’s going to be in the playoffs. We’re pretty much playing those type of games from here on out in my mind.”