SAN FRANCISCO -- If the Rockies' season ends the way they want, the power that second baseman DJ LeMahieu has displayed for the last month will be a big part of the story. But LeMahieu actually foreshadowed his ability to turn games with the home run -- not previously a big part of his game -- on June 28 against the Giants.
That day, the Rockies built a 5-2 lead through the top of the fourth, only to see it disappear with the struggles of righty pitcher Jon Gray, whose performance would lead to his being sent down to Triple-A. It seemed the Rockies -- wallowing in fourth place in the National League West at the time -- were headed to a galling loss.
LeMahieu's two-run homer off the Giants' Sam Dyson in the top of the ninth provided a 9-8 victory. From that point through Thursday, the Rockies were 42-23. They entered Friday night's opener of three games against the Giants -- their first trip to AT&T Park since the game that LeMahieu swung their way -- leading the division by 1 1/2 games over the Dodgers.
Was it a turnaround moment?
"I don't know -- it was a game that we really needed to win," said LeMahieu, who since Aug. 10 has hit seven homers, several in key victories. "We scored nine runs, back and forth, huge win, definitely.
"It seemed like after that our pitchers went to L.A. and all three starters had, like, seven innings, one or fewer runs. Our pitchers have been pretty dang consistent since that point."
Manager Bud Black said it's hard to pinpoint a moment as a turnaround.
"Maybe looking back, you can make that claim," Black said. "But being around this game a long time, I don't think there's one moment that triggers something. When we left the ballpark that night, we felt good about what happened in that game. The more of those moments you can have, the more of those wins you can get, there's no doubt you gain momentum. You gain confidence."
While starting pitching has been the biggest factor in the Rockies' recent success, clutch hits have been plentiful. Such at-bats have had a tendency to come late in games, even in games when the offense struggled early.
Clutch hitting has been debated by modern stat analysts. Theories have ranged from denying its existence -- with the thought being that over the long haul a player will perform to his average -- to simply questioning the degree to which a player can lift his performance at a key point. It's possible, as Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta theorized about the Rockies' late-game success, that the sample size still isn't big enough for the numbers to provide an answer.
LeMahieu believes big at-bats bring out the best in hitters who know what they are doing. Some of the Rockies' success has come from younger players, with third-year shortstop Trevor Story and rookies Ryan McMahon, David Dahl and Noel Cuevas having made big contributions late in wins. But more commonly, veterans like LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, Ian Desmond, Matthew Holliday, Iannetta and, after ending a recent slump, Nolan Arenado- are coming up with big at-bats.
LeMahieu believes there is a knack for hitting in big situations.
"Most guys in the league are probably going to hit better in more important situations, I would guess," LeMahieu said. "Probably the better players hit better and the better pitchers are in those situations."
Feeling the heat
Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland, who left Thursday's 10-3 victory over the D-backs after 6 1/3 innings (four hits, three runs, six strikeouts) with tightness in his left calf, reported feeling better Friday. Freeland said the hot day game (88 degrees at game time and rising) was a problem.
"I've had it a couple times this season," Freeland said. "Yesterday was a little more drastic, but nothing too much. It happened when I was pitching a full extension and I cramped up in my calf. It usually happens on hot days. I felt pretty hydrated, but a hot day in thin air is a combination that leads to cramps."