MILWAUKEE -- It was another Rockies starting pitching moment that wasn't supposed to happen, on a staff that isn't supposed to be tops in baseball for any period -- let along more than a month.
Yet, Antonio Senzatela, who many have claimed doesn't have any weapon but his fastball, faced a bases-loaded situation in the sixth inning and fanned Harrison Bader on a slider in the dirt to protect what was at the time was a one-run lead during Thursday's eventual 3-2 loss to the Cardinals. A starting staff, that, since June 28, entered Friday's game leading the Majors in ERA (2.97), batting average against (.207), opponent OPS (.596) and fewest hits per nine innings (6.79), and has provided such moments consistently.
Righty Jon Gray, who struggled earlier this year when games have gone negative, beat Greg Garcia with a slider for a key double play in Tuesday's 6-3 win at St. Louis. Lefty Kyle Freeland gave up three hits and no runs in six innings against the Athletics last Friday. German Marquez was stellar on Friday night against the Brewers, striking out nine in seven frames. Then there's also left Tyler Anderson, who turned in consecutive eight-inning starts on June 29 and July 4.
"Whenever you see a guy go seven or eight innings and really dominate a lineup, you want to go and do the same thing next time you start," said Freeland, who at 9-7 with a 3.20 ERA.
The Rockies take the field plastered with 25th Anniversary logos, but for much of that time, the pitching hasn't been worthy of celebration. But after a strong year from a young staff last season, pitching coach Steve Foster gathered the group in Spring Training and prepared for success.
"I don't really care if anybody really knows it, but I told the guys the other day, 'Fostie' told you guys you were the best pitching staff in the world in Spring Training," said Mark Wiley, the Rockies' director of pitching operations. "And now we've matched up against a bunch of these teams that are supposed to have the best pitching staffs in the world. And guess what? We've outpitched them."
Interestingly, part of the philosophy for a pitching staff that has to tame a hitter-friendly park, as well as the park-befriended hitters, is to not attach numbers to self-worth. After all, the pitchers had a strong April and May to push the Rockies into first place, and slumped badly by allowing a 6.20 ERA May 30-June 28, before the current surge. The message to the starters is know who they are, pitch to that, and the numbers will reflect it.
Gray, Freeland and Anderson are all first-round picks. Senzatela and Marquez (originally signed by the Rays) were prized international signees, and Chad Bettis (rehabbing a right middle finger injury) was a second-rounder. Why can't they be among baseball's top staffs?
"I don't look at the stats; had people not told me, I wouldn't know them," Foster said. "But I knew in my heart and head that it was coming."
The struggles in June actually provided the Rockies a chance to be creative in reminding the players of their capabilities.
The Rockies have plenty of pitching resources in manager Bud Black, Foster and bullpen coach Darren Holmes, who lends his expertise in pitching mechanics to the starters. But in late June, and for nearly two weeks, the Rockies also called in Wiley, who joined the organization before the 2013 MLB Draft that saw the Rox select Gray third overall, and co-pitching coordinator Darryl Scott, who worked with every starter at some point in the Minors.
The aim wasn't to kick the pitchers into action, or challenge them or offer new instruction.
"They weren't hands-on aggressive, trying to get us back in line," said Gray, who needed a two-start retool at Triple-A Albuquerque this season, but has posted a 1.66 ERA in three starts since his return. "They wanted to be there for us, really. There was just a lot of positive baseball talk."
Not long after the turnaround began, Foster invited Wiley to speak to the pitching staff and the catchers. Years back, when Wiley was the Marlins' pitching coach and Foster was his bullpen coach, Wiley would have Foster give a similar talk. It was simply to reinforce what was going right, offer key stats and background examples. It's stuck.
By being positive and merely reinforcing their belief and the small adjustments each pitcher needed to make, pitchers say they understood that even at their worst, they were close.
Marquez, for example, was working on developing his changeup and staying consistent with his motion. Rather than looking at big chunks of failure during his 2-3, 6.75 ERA performance in June, he said he was able to boil it down to "big adjustments in small moments."
Now, Anderson said, it's simply pitchers modeling positive examples.
"Sometimes you go off what you see," he said. "If you see your guys going bad, maybe you think the hitters are better than they are. You see guys dominate, you're like, 'Oh, I expect to do the same thing.'"