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Rox challenge starters to get 3rd look at lineup

Pitchers know they must adjust to last longer, give bullpen a breather
MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A starting pitcher's job is solitary -- stay on the mound for his team for as many innings, as many batters, as possible. But Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland learned during his near-no-hitter against the White Sox on July 9 at Coors Field that getting through a lineup three or more times -- something his team doesn't shy away from letting its pitchers do -- sometimes requires help.

With two down in the seventh inning and Tim Anderson up, catcher Ryan Hanigan wanted to discuss strategy. But after spending a warm afternoon letting his arm work and keeping his mind where an athlete often needs it -- out of the way -- Freeland drew a blank.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A starting pitcher's job is solitary -- stay on the mound for his team for as many innings, as many batters, as possible. But Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland learned during his near-no-hitter against the White Sox on July 9 at Coors Field that getting through a lineup three or more times -- something his team doesn't shy away from letting its pitchers do -- sometimes requires help.

With two down in the seventh inning and Tim Anderson up, catcher Ryan Hanigan wanted to discuss strategy. But after spending a warm afternoon letting his arm work and keeping his mind where an athlete often needs it -- out of the way -- Freeland drew a blank.

"I remember 'Hanny' saying, 'Remember, the last two at-bats we've gone hard inside both times, so start him away, get him thinking away most of the at-bats, then get him out inside,'" said Freeland, who lasted 8 1/3 hitless innings before giving up a single that led to his exit from the 10-0 victory. "At that point, I was just nodding my head, yes. But I had no idea."

Video: Must C Conclusion: Freeland loses no-hit bid in 9th

Whatever it takes -- power, finesse, strategy, even friendly reminders of forgotten sequences -- the Rockies want their pitchers going deep in games. True, a battery of stats exist that say the third time through an order is trouble -- a .272 MLB average last season. But unlike some teams that seem to automatically be looking to the bullpen at that danger point, the Rockies have made it clear they want their starters to earn more time in the game.

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Part of the strategy is a necessity because of Colorado's hitter-friendly home. Manager Bud Black has noted that if he rides the bullpen early in a series or a homestand, he could be left short if subsequent games turn funky.

"Through what I know about that player, what I know about his talent, what I know about his performance that game, how he's throwing the ball, what I know statistically, that'll all be formulated to make a decision on when he comes out of the game," Black said. "It's predicated on a lot of different things. But the hard-and-fast rule about third time through, that is really a tough one to adhere to the entire season."

2017 stats suggest that teams employ a different thought process. Success in the standings is no predictor. According to Stats Inc., the 98-loss Giants had their starters not only lead the Majors by facing at least one hitter a third time in all but two of their 162 games, but the 39 times they let the starter face a hitter a fourth time were tops. The 104-win Dodgers were last in the Majors with 140 times facing a batter three times.

For having a young staff in a tough park, the Rockies had solid numbers. Their 149 games of at least one third-time plate appearance were tied for 11th in the Majors, and their 936 batters faced were 12th.

Video: Bud Black on Rockies' rotation heading into 2018

However, they must improve the result -- a .283 average against, which ranked 20th and was a reason the Rox had just 16 times facing an order four or more times. The Dodgers, even with an apparent quick-hook policy, had 15 such occasions.

Last season, Freeland held opponents to a stellar .228 average his third time through. Righty Chad Bettis, who fought cancer and didn't pitch until August, had a few stellar third-time occasions and yielded just a .250 average. Rookie righty Antonio Senzatela posted a .269 average against. German Marquez gave up a .319 average, but led the team with 37 third-time strikeouts.

Righty Jon Gray went 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA, a solid job in a season shortened to 20 starts by a right foot injury. But he yielded a .293 third-time average -- after a .256 mark as a rookie in 2016.

"Sometimes I do get a little predictable later in the game," Gray said. "I'll get some guys out inside, and I know that's where they're looking. It's a lot easier for me if I can throw something to the other side of the plate."

Freeland, Bettis and lefty Tyler Anderson, who allowed a .352 third-time average in an injury-filled season that he finished strong, have diverse pitch mixes, which work in their favor late in games.

Gray, Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman (.326 third-time average) seek strikeouts, but are working on forcing early contact. Senzatela and Marquez each are adding changeups to give hitters another concern.

Veteran catcher Chris Iannetta, who signed during the offseason, is there to foster diverse pitching.

"You can't just stay one speed, one location, one pitch," Iannetta said. "There have been very few guys that can do that, and those guys usually pitch one inning -- the Mariano Riveras, the guys that just throw one pitch. As a starter, you need to keep guys off balance."

Big free-agent contracts to closer Wade Davis, righty Bryan Shaw and lefty Jake McGee have fortified the bullpen. But Colorado's starters feel challenged to pitch so well that the relievers aren't needed.

"You've got to pass the eye test with Buddy, prove you can do it," Anderson said. "Our bullpen is already on paper phenomenal. But if our starters are going seven innings or more every time, our bullpen is going to be even better."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.

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