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First-inning improvement a focus for rotation

Starters have struggled to open games this season
MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Rockies right-hander Jon Gray is calling for stand-ins as he throws his final bullpen pitches before games, righty German Marquez is trying mind tricks, and lefty Tyler Anderson is studying strategies.

Whether it's physical or mental, Rockies starters need to find a way to reverse a trend of poor first innings.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- When Rockies right-hander Jon Gray is calling for stand-ins as he throws his final bullpen pitches before games, righty German Marquez is trying mind tricks, and lefty Tyler Anderson is studying strategies.

Whether it's physical or mental, Rockies starters need to find a way to reverse a trend of poor first innings.

View Full Game Coverage

Righty Chad Bettis entered Tuesday's start against the Giants with an 11.40 ERA in the first inning -- the highest of any pitcher with 10 or more starts. Second on that list is Marquez at 11.25. Anderson is sixth at 7.88. Gray is at 6.19, for 14th.

It's a problem the Rockies are taking seriously.

"We're talking about it, for sure," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "The thing that has to be fixed is the quality of the pitch in the first inning, for sure. That's the thing that we're discussing. Every pitch is important, from the first pitch to the last. What we're keenly aware of is our guys know it, and I suspect you'll see this trend change. You'll see intent from the first pitch to the last."

Marquez's performance in Sunday's 8-5 loss to the Marlins illustrated the issue. Derek Dietrich doubled on the first pitch, Brian Anderson singled on the second, and just seven pitches in, Marquez trailed, 3-0.

With the problem permeating the staff -- with the exception of Kyle Freeland, at 2.40 in the first -- the issue can't be avoided any longer.

"You have to change a routine when you fall into a pattern that's negative. In life, there are times when you have to make adjustments when what you do isn't working," pitching coach Steve Foster said.

Gray said at one point he moved away from using either standing a hitter dummy at the plate or using one of the bullpen catchers -- Aaron Munoz or Kyle Cunningham, on this trip -- as a "hitter" for his final bullpen warmup pitches. He isn't sure why, but he's gone back to that plan. It worked OK in his last start, when he managed a scoreless first inning, despite men on second and third with one out, and fanned 12 over seven innings of an 11-3 victory over the Mets.

"I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I like to see the hitter, because there are consequences to a bad pitch," Gray said. "It gets me more in a competitive mindset. I'll say, 'We're going to treat this guy as Brandon Belt, and I'm going to make great pitches to him.'"

Marquez is going to attack his next start, which lines up for Saturday in Los Angeles, with a new thought process.

"My mentality is going to be, 'I've got to throw my first inning in the bullpen,' know what I mean?" said Marquez, whose ERA in the second drops to 3.38. "I'm not going to have a hitter in there. But I'm going to do it differently. I believe you are going to see that change this season."

Anderson noted that opponents have adjusted after the Rockies' rotation proved talented enough to be a key part of the team earning a National League Wild Card Game berth last year, so a counter may be in order. Anderson said hitters are swinging earlier to avoid out pitches such as Marquez's fastball, Gray's slider and the changeups possessed by himself and Bettis.

"I'm sure a lot of hitters are thinking, 'Let's ambush this guy, so we won't have to face a nasty fastball or slider or curveball,'" Anderson said.

Sometimes just talking about it can spark inspiration. While discussing his strategy, Gray thought of what he did in the Minors.

"I struggled in the first innings in Double-A, so I had to pretend I was closing the game in the first inning," Gray said. "It could be something, since it worked for me back in the day."

Dunn and Oberg appear ready

Rockies lefty reliever Mike Dunn and righty reliever Scott Oberg, each rehabbing back injuries, pitched for Class A Advanced Lancaster at Modesto on Monday. Each threw a scoreless inning with two strikeouts and a walk. They rejoined the team Tuesday and could be activated Wednesday.

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

Colorado Rockies, Chad Bettis, German Marquez