Rockies learning how to take a punch

There are baseball games that appear to tell a larger story than a 1/162nd slice of a languorous season, and last Thursday’s looked like one of those for the Rockies.

They were facing a Giants team that swept them early in the season and had beaten them nine straight times dating to last year. Seven of their next 10 were going to be against San Francisco, sort of a lie detector test for a Rockies team that had roared out of the gate. If the Giants did what they did last year, winning 14 of 18, or the year before that, winning 13 of 18, the Rocks’ early-season pretensions to contention would do what they did in 2011 — crash and burn in May.

So they rocked Matt Cain for three home runs in the first three innings, including back-to-back jacks from the past and the future — 39-year-old first baseman Todd Helton and 22-year-old third baseman Nolan Arenado — handing Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin a 6-0 lead.

Chacin promptly gave it all back, surrendering five runs in the fourth and leaving in the sixth with the score tied and the eventual winning runs on base. Following its early explosion, the Rockies’ offense shut down, collecting one hit after the third inning against Cain, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo.

It was the most discouraging loss of the year. Not only had the Rocks seemed to prove they couldn’t beat the Giants on a bet, they had confirmed the worst suspicions about their character as a team — frontrunners who fold when the going gets sticky. After winning 13 of their first 17 games and spending 16 days in first place, the 8-6 defeat dropped them to 21-20 and third place.

So how did they respond to this soul-sapping loss? They swept the next three from the Giants, battering Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito for 20 runs and getting a six-inning shutout of their own from Juan Nicasio, who, prior to that start, had been flirting with re-education camp.

“I think our team showed who they were early on,” said first-year manager Walt Weiss. “Had some opportunities to overcome some things and they did that. That’s why I don’t get too down when we struggle, because I know that that’s part of the deal up here. You’re going to get beat up a little bit in this league, but I have confidence that our guys will do what they did in the last three days. When it looks like they start to slide, they turn it around. They’ve done it a handful of times already this year. That’s a great trait to have.”

Many fans still base their expectations on the larger sample size of the past two seasons, but the Rocks’ weekend bounce-back against their nemesis over that span was the best sign so far that things actually might be different this year.

“I really think this bunch is extremely competitive and we’re sick of losing,” said reliever Matt Belisle, part of the four-man shutout in Sunday’s 5-0 series finale. “And these Giants have beat up on us quite a bit and we want to turn the tables.”

With the additions of Arenado and catcher Wilin Rosario to the core of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer and Helton, the middle of the Rocks’ order has grown truly prodigious. They lead the National League in runs (221 in 44 games, an average of five per game), home runs (58), batting average (.272) and slugging percentage (.445).

Individually, Tulowitzki leads the league in runs batted in (37) and ranks third in batting average (.336). Gonzalez is tied for fourth in home runs (10) and is fifteenth in batting (.308). Rosario has nine homers, Fowler and Tulo have eight apiece and the disabled Cuddyer has seven.

So, yeah, they can rake. But the big story so far is on the mound, where the Rocks have cut more than a run off their worst-in-baseball staff earned-run average of a year ago. After posting a 5.22 staff ERA and earning laughingstock honors with rotation and pitch count experiments in 2012, the Rocks rank in the middle of the pack so far this year with a staff ERA of 3.85. That includes a 3.04 mark out of the bullpen, fifth-best in the NL.

Any team that plays half its games at Coors Field is going to be challenged to be competitive nationally in pitching statistics, and the Rocks have never finished a season with a staff ERA lower than 4.00 in their 20-year history. Still, injuries were a big part of the story last year. Chacin, Nicasio and Jorge De La Rosa were all out most of last season, and their return has made a huge difference, as has replacing Jeremy Guthrie with Jon Garland as the veteran free agent. A team that had 27 quality starts all last year has 18 less than two months into the season.

It also presents them with exactly the opposite of last year’s problem. They have too many starters. Tyler Chatwood, called up for a third spot start when Jeff Francis suffered a pulled groin, deserves to be in the rotation. Not only is he 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA, he’s done damage with the bat (he’s a former shortstop) and demonstrated a competitive grittiness that shows up well among the Rockies’ many nice guys.

But whose spot does he take? A week ago you might have said either Francis or Nicasio, who were struggling. But Francis gave up one run in six innings in his last start before going on the DL and Nicasio gave up none in six Sunday against the Giants.

Of the five starters, only De La Rosa has an ERA below 4.00, so the rotation is not exactly impenetrable. And Drew Pomeranz, the prize of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, will be knocking on the door soon enough. He’s 6-0 with a 3.22 ERA for Triple-A Colorado Springs.

Nicasio remains the most enigmatic of the existing starters. There are those who think he’s better suited to the bullpen considering he’s basically a one-pitch pitcher. But when Nicasio’s fastball is electric and down, he doesn’t need much variety. Lately, he had been building up vast pitch counts early in games trying to be too fine. So Weiss paired him Sunday with veteran catcher Yorvit Torrealba.

“I just say, ‘Whatever I put down, you throw it,'” Torrealba explained when asked about his pre-game instructions for Nicasio.

“I mean, I don’t try to take any credit or anything, but I told him I just want him to go out there and have fun. I don’t want him to think at all. Just go ahead and throw it and execute down. And then, whatever happens, happens. If you get killed, blame it on me, I don’t care. I just want him to throw strikes and see what happens. And he did.”

Considering what they went through last year, deploying starters who clearly weren’t ready because everybody else was hurt, it’s a nice problem to have.

Things can change in a heartbeat, of course. The Rocks conclude the current homestand with three against the Diamondbacks, who are now in first place, leading both the Rocks and Giants by a game, and then travel to San Francisco for three more with the Giants. Those first couple of days at sea level after a homestand are still a challenge for them. The last time they hit the road, the Cardinals threw consecutive complete-game shutouts at them.

Still, the weekend demonstrated something about this year’s Rocks that wasn’t all that clear before: They can take a punch.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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