Desperate for starting pitching, the Rockies fired up the flux capacitor and reached into the past, snatching Jeff Francis off the major league scrap heap and sending him out to face Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels at Coors Field on Saturday.
Three and a third innings later, the Rockies’ first-round draft pick a decade ago had given up eight runs on 10 hits and much of the air had gone out of the sentimental story.
“It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but it certainly felt good to be back out there and back in here,” Francis said afterward. “I know I’ve got a lot more than that to offer this team so I’m going to continue to work hard and bounce back from it.”
Manager Jim Tracy promised earlier in the day that Francis would get more than one spot start as the Rocks await the return of Juan Nicasio from the disabled list.
“I’ve written his name down a couple times, as a matter of fact,” Tracy said a couple of hours before Saturday’s 11-5 loss, his team’s fourth in a row. “We’ll see where it takes us, but I’m not a believer that you give a guy one start and then say, ‘That’s it, that’s not good enough, that’s not going to work, that’s not what we’re looking for, we’re moving on to yet another guy.’ You’ve got to give this guy some opportunity.”
After Francis’ abbreviated outing, the third time in the last four games the Rocks’ starter failed to survive the fourth inning, Tracy kept his post-mortem brief.
“I don’t want to judge him too much the first time out. I don’t want to get real involved in analyzing and/or feeling like I’m overanalyzing Jeff. Just like anybody else, that’s his first time after what he had been doing at Triple-A with the Reds. Let’s let him take another start. He threw strikes like he always does. They certainly didn’t pound him. I believe they hit all singles with the exception of Pujols’ home run (off Guillermo Moscoso). Let’s get him his time off and get him back out there, let him have another start and see where we go from there.
“And Jeff realizes this, the important thing is he pitches ahead and gets ahead of hitters and doesn’t put himself in a position where he has to use a bunch of the plate, because I don’t think that’s going to work out too well for him or anybody else. But I think we’ll stop right there and just let him go back out there a second time and see where it goes from there.”
According to the Coors Field radar gun, Francis threw his fastball between 85 and 89 miles an hour, his change-up in the high 70s and his big, looping curve ball in the high 60s. I mentioned I didn’t recall the curve getting down into the 60s before. He smiled and suggested altitude might have something to do with that.
“It’s something I do take off a bit,” he said. “It’s a pitch that you come here and you’ve got to make some adjustments with it.”
The ninth overall pick of the 2002 draft, Francis had double-digit wins for the Rocks in 2005, 2006 and 2007, winning 44 games over that span, including 17 in ’07, when he also won two playoff games before losing Game 1 of the World Series.
When he returned in 2008 he had soreness in his pitching shoulder. He tried to pitch through it, finishing a disappointing 4-10. When the pain returned in spring training of 2009, he shut it down and submitted to surgical repair. His recovery wiped out his 2009 season and delayed his 2010 return until mid-May.
He finished 2010 with a record of 4-6, an earned-run average of 5.00 and his former velocity — in the low ’90s — a distant memory. He’d never been a power pitcher, but now he was dangerously close to having to rely entirely on guile.
Eligible for free agency and coming off a year in which he’d earned $5.7 million, the Rockies decided to let the market determine his value. He signed a one-year deal for $2 million with the Kansas City Royals, where he went 6-16 with a 4.82 ERA.
When no big league club summoned him this year, Francis signed a minor league deal with Cincinnati. He pitched creditably, if not spectacularly, for the Triple-A Louisville Bats, going 3-6 with a 3.72 ERA. His 77 1/3 innings led the club. After throwing a complete game shutout over the Durham Bulls last Sunday (June 3), Francis exercised his option to get out of his deal. He said Saturday he had no assurances from the Rockies when he made that decision.
“I just took a risk hoping there’d be a job out there for me somewhere, and fortunately there was,” he said.
When the Rockies called, he didn’t hesitate, despite knowing better than most the effect that pitching at altitude can have on a hurler’s statistics. Having pitched most of his career in Colorado, Francis has a mediocre career ERA of 4.78.
“I wasn’t going to wait around,” he said. “The Rockies wanted me to play here. I wasn’t going to turn it down. I loved playing here when I was here and I’d love to help this team win again. I can’t imagine anything better than winning in this town. So when the opportunity came up, I jumped on it.”
Now, of course, the question is whether the post-surgical Francis, at 31, can help.
“I really do the things that I’ve always done as a pitcher,” he said. “I don’t really think I’ve changed a lot. Since the surgery I’ve really tried to get back to the pitcher I was and the pitcher I am. To me, there’s only one way I know how to throw, and that’s what you see out there. The velocity has never come all the way back, but it’s creeping, it’s creeping. It’s more than it was at this time last year. So there’s things that I continue to do to stay strong and to stay healthy.”
While it’s true Francis didn’t give up any extra-base hits Saturday, he gave up a lot of sharp singles, 10 in 3 1/3 innings, including five in the second inning alone.
“Obviously, I gave up a lot of hits, but I don’t feel like I was hit around hard,” he said. “A couple of balls that could have gone a different way could have turned around some innings for me, but they didn’t, and I wasn’t able to recover from it. I’d make a mistake here and there and they’d take advantage of it. Next thing you know, it’s eight runs later.”
The Rocks are desperate enough for starting pitching to give Francis a longer leash, but they do have an in-house alternative in Moscoso, who is currently the long man in the bullpen but was a starter last season for Oakland. Moscoso wasn’t great in relief of Francis, giving up two runs on four hits in 2 2/3 innings, but he was better than Francis. Of course, Moscoso had chances to earn a spot in the rotation, both in spring training and early in the season, and failed to take advantage.
To make room for Francis on the roster, the Rockies finally threw in the towel on talented but maddening Esmil Rogers, designating him for assignment. Rogers has great stuff, often hitting 96 with his fastball, but his mental focus comes and goes. The last straw came Friday night, when Tracy brought him in to pitch the top of the ninth against the Angels.
“You’re trailing 4-1,” Tracy said. “We need three outs. He gets two outs on five pitches and 18 pitches later I have to walk out there and get him. And we’ve got to warm another guy up and bring another guy in. You just start running out of opportunities to do that because the club doesn’t respond to it too well, either, let’s be honest about it, when they see him walk out there. That’s where we’re at.”
The Angels scored three in the ninth off Rogers and won going away, 7-2. Tracy said the Rockies would be happy to take Rogers back if he clears waivers, but with his arm, someone seems likely to put in a claim.
The Rocks have now slipped back to 10 games below .500 at 24-34. Most of the good feeling from their recent 6-1 homestand has disappeared. Their starting rotation could qualify as a federal disaster area. They can’t expect their results to change until that does.
“The thing that I have to say simply boils down to this,” Tracy said following Saturday’s loss. “Much like we were dealing with in the month of May, over the course of three out of the last four days we pitched a total of 9 2/3 starter innings, and that’s not going to work. It’s just simply not going to work.”
Those would be Josh Outman (3 innings), Jeremy Guthrie (3 1/3) and Francis (3 1/3). The only bright spot was six innings from Alex White, who made two mistakes to Torii Hunter, which were enough to beat an offense that scored three runs in three games before Saturday, when it produced five home runs, all of them solo shots. It was the second game this season in which the Rocks hit five home runs. They lost both.
Whether Francis can help turn around the worst starting pitching in the National League will determine whether his return to Colorado is more than a forgettable curtain call.