Rox 'pen shows improvement after slow start

April 29th, 2021

The Rockies’ bullpen is too busy making an impressive turnaround to waste energy fretting about the team’s early record.

Tough bullpen showings in the first two weeks, especially struggles with walks, were among the reasons for Colorado's 4-12 start. But the Rockies had won five of seven games going into Wednesday night's series finale against the Giants at Oracle Park, and the depth that can lead to a hot streak is quietly developing.

“All of our games have been really close, and you see a lot of good things that have been going on,” said veteran right-hander Mychal Givens, who entered Wednesday with a 2.70 ERA and had been scored upon only twice in 10 outings. “Everybody wants to talk about the negativity of the situation and our record. But it's still early and still able to change everything around and go out there and compete like we've been doing it last few series.”

Through April 18, Rockies relievers had a 5.80 ERA and had walked almost half as many as they had struck out (27 walks, 56 strikeouts). Add nine home runs to all that base traffic, and you have a key reason the Rockies could not win close games.

But in the past seven games -- which included series wins over the Astros and Phillies -- the bullpen had a 3.38 ERA, with 23 strikeouts against six walks in 26 2/3 innings. After dropping their first nine games decided by two or fewer runs, the Rockies won two of their next three -- including Tuesday’s 7-5, 10-inning decision.

In between, manager Bud Black led a heart-to-heart meeting. Essentially, what happened in Arizona in February and March didn’t stay in Arizona.

“What was a little concerning to me was that a lot of guys didn't have great springs,” Black said. “I've seen many, many times over the years that the bell rings and guys all of a sudden turn it on and pitch well. That wasn't the case this year.

“The thing that I brought to their attention was just that -- that we can't continue this trend. And it isn't just because of the regular season. I told them, ‘Fellas, we saw this in Spring Training, where you were competing in exhibition games. Even though they didn't count, I saw some things I didn't really like. So we addressed that. And I think, to their credit, they have since turned that around.”

Carlos Estévez struggled throughout the spring, and Tyler Kinley’s strong spring performance didn’t carry into the regular season. Yency Almonte has maintained a 23.1-percent hard-hit rate that ranked seventh lowest among MLB pitchers with at least 25 batted balls entering Wednesday. However, bad luck, high early usage and occasional poor pitch selection muted his effectiveness.

But Givens, who gave up a beyond-his-control inside-the-park homer in his first outing, has been steady. Because there is only one lefty (Ben Bowden) in the 'pen, Givens has faced left-handed hitters late in games and excelled by increasing the use of his changeup. Righty Robert Stephenson (2.53 ERA through 11 appearances) has pitched his way to higher leverage situations, and Bowden and righty Jordan Sheffield have fared well in limited duty.

Daniel Bard has had two blown saves recently because of poor pitch location, but that’s correctable. Bard, Givens and long reliever Jhoulys Chacín are veterans for an otherwise young group that had to absorb the loss of Scott Oberg, whose recurring blood clots have kept him off the mound since 2019.

This season’s early struggles point to a team that may have to deal some assets and devote itself to seeing which low service-time players are keepers. But if the Rockies climb into contention, Black’s proven handling of bullpens could come into play.

Stephenson going from an unknown -- acquired during the winter from the Reds -- to trusted reliever is an example of Black’s ability to maximize relievers who are throwing well.

“It’s always going to be about who's doing well at whatever time and earning the trust of the manager,” said Stephenson, who has a trusted slider and improving fastball. “A key to being able to go out there and let him put you in situations that he feels comfortable with. I knew I was going to be middle relief, but with the opportunity that if things went well, I'd be working into some higher leverage situations.”

Givens arrived in a trade with the Orioles last season, before the Rockies fell out of contention. But he was with Baltimore both when it was and wasn't in postseason contention, and he believes he has learned that a team with a well-functioning bullpen can’t be counted out.

Givens is not counting out the Rockies.

“We’re getting there,” Givens said. “Just have fun and keep enjoying the ride.”