Rockies ready for challenges of home stretch

Colorado's young staff up to task for Coors Field slate

July 17th, 2017

For the better part of the past month, a dream-like season for the Rockies has had nightmarish moments. Oh, they are still off to their best start ever. They still are in control of a National League Wild Card bid.

But the time has come for Colorado to quiet the skeptics and show that it belongs in the discussions of postseason possibilities.

The Rockies open a three-game series against the Padres at Coors Field on Monday night coming off a 13-4 victory against the Mets at Citi Field on Sunday, a feel-good moment tempered by the fact it was only their fifth victory in their past 20 games. It's a stretch that saw the Rox slip from first place in the NL West to their current third-place position, 11 1/2 games back of the Dodgers. But they're only a game behind the D-backs and 5 1/2 games up on the Cubs in the bid for the second NL Wild Card spot.

There is no panic in the clubhouse, but there is a definite sense of urgency. And there is a growing confidence.

Yes, , the most experienced member of the rotation, went on the disabled list on Sunday with a strained right calf. That puts the Rockies back in a position to have four rookies in their rotation, which isn't all bad, considering who those four rookies are.

, who will return to the rotation after making a start for Triple-A Albuquerque last Thursday, will be rejoining , and , which happens to be the first quartet of rookie teammates to each have five or more wins at the All-Star break in Major League history.

The four pitchers have no fear of Coors Field. Veteran starters may be intimidated. Marginal journeyman may panic. The Rockies' rookies, however, are embracing what they believe is their home field advantage.

They like pitching in Colorado, and they should. Each has a winning record at Coors Field, fashioning a combined 17-9 record, and the Rockies are 19-10 in the 29 games the four have started in the mile-high ballpark.

In their most recent game at Coors Field, the Rockies topped the White Sox on July 9 as Freeland, a Denver native born 39 days after the club's first game in 1993, carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning. He is "only" 5-4 in Colorado (hey, Senzatela is 7-2), but he has a strong 3.23 ERA. But then, Freeland grew up in altitude. Heck, Thomas Jefferson High School, his alma mater, is just a 12-mile drive down I-25 from Coors Field. He doesn't know any better.

Freeland helps set a tone that has the Rockies' young arms welcoming the idea that 37 of their final 67 games come at Coors Field, and only 22 of their final 67 games are against teams with a winning record, which includes seven games each in September against the Dodgers and D-backs.

It's not like the rookie starters have road fright. They are a combined 16-12 on the road, and all four of them have a winning record. The past 20 games have been a challenge, but the team has a 27-23 road mark.

That may not seem overwhelming, but in their previous 24 years of existence, the Rockies have had a winning record on the road only once. That was in 2009, the last year they advanced to the postseason. That season, Colorado finished one game above .500 (41-40) away from home.

The Rockies were the NL Wild Card winners that year, just like the two other times they advanced to the postseason -- 1995 and 2007. And if they do hold on, they figure to get a playoff spot again this year. The Dodgers got hot right about the time Colorado cooled off, and there's no indication of Los Angeles slowing down.

In winning 29 of their past 33 games, the Dodgers' pitching staff has a 2.99 ERA with a .218 opponents' batting average. They have that 1-2 punch of ace , who is 7-0 with a 2.01 ERA in starting seven of those 33 games, and closer , who has converted all 14 of his save opportunities in that stretch.

It's an emphatic statement Los Angeles is making; Colorado and Arizona aren't fooling themselves.

But they don't have to. There are those two NL Wild Card spots, which would require a team to play an extra game to get to the World Series, but those teams still have a legitimate chance to be champions.

Twelve Wild Card clubs have advanced to the World Series in the past 20 years, including five that won a championship -- the Marlins in 1997 and 2003, the Angels in '02, the Red Sox in '04 and the Cardinals in '11.

Will there be a lucky 13th team this season? The Rockies would like to think so.