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Rockies end '19 with 2nd straight walk-off win

@harding_at_mlb
September 29, 2019

DENVER -- The best the Rockies could do Sunday was escape last place in the National League West. But while escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the 11th and going another frame in the 4-3, 13-inning victory over the Brewers, reliever DJ Johnson let his mind drift to the postseason.

DENVER -- The best the Rockies could do Sunday was escape last place in the National League West. But while escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the 11th and going another frame in the 4-3, 13-inning victory over the Brewers, reliever DJ Johnson let his mind drift to the postseason.

Box score

Well, last year’s postseason.

The Rockies made it in 2018 in a most-exhausting way. There was a tiebreaker game for the division at Los Angeles, and the Rockies’ loss plunged them into the National League Wild Card game against the Cubs the following day. The Rox won that one, but in the NL Division series, the Brewers were more than happy to sweep an opponent that seemed to leave its best baseball behind after playing in three time zones in such a short time period.

“We definitely wanted to get this sweep, considering what Milwaukee did to us last year,” said Johnson, who bounced between the Rockies and Triple-A Albuquerque this year, but pitched a scoreless two-thirds of an inning in the NLDS last year. “That’s why I went in with the intention of [doing] everything I could to get out of the inning with minimal damage.”

The Rockies certainly didn’t plan for Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun to leave the first game with a calf strain (he's expected to be OK) or Lorenzo Cain sustaining an ankle sprain Saturday (his status is up in the air). But it was fine with Johnson and the Rockies that the Brewers head to Tuesday’s NL Wild Card Game having had their momentum -- Milwaukee had won 18 of its last 20 games before coming to Denver -- halted.

Johnson’s strange escape, which eventually led to Sam Hilliard scoring the winning run on a 13th-inning wild pitch from Brewers reliever Jake Faria, will go down as an interesting footnote at the end of a bitter 71-91 finish. The delirium of the Fan Appreciation Day crowd faded quickly. The hard questions of what, why and what to do about the disappointing season are already starting.

But at least Sunday typified what the Rockies have been seeking for the last two months, once they determined that they would not be going to the postseason for a third straight year.

The season’s original rotation was entirely on the 10-day injured list by August. In the bullpen, Scott Oberg saw his season end because of blood clots in his right arm, while veterans Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw (who pitched the 13th to earn the win) and Jake McGee struggled more often than not. So it was time to put less-experienced people in spots they may not normally occupy.

On Sunday, the Brewers had loaded the bases in the 11th against Yency Almonte, so why not give Johnson a shot? He had been solid, pitching scoreless outings in 11 of 13 appearances since Aug. 20.

Johnson bounced a pitch past catcher Dom Nuñez, but the right-hander covered the plate to tag out a hesitant Ben Gamel. Johnson then fanned Manny Piña and Hernán Pérez to escape, and finished with four strikeouts in two innings.

Manager Bud Black didn’t play Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner Nolan Arenado. He also removed All-Star offensive cog Charlie Blackmon after five innings. But a lineup built largely with lesser-service time players warmed to spoiling the Brewers, who led most of the game and had a chance to tie for the NL Central crown until the Cardinals clinched by routing the Cubs.

“When the game started, there was a feel about this game, because it had impact with the Cardinals and the Brewers, and potentially a game [on Monday] … all those things that we experienced last year,” Black said. “I felt, in our dugout, a little bit of a different type of intensity. It was pretty cool.

“Some guys were looking at the scoreboard and the Cardinals jumped out to a lead, and it sort of changed a little bit. But our guys kept playing.”

Some of the Rockies’ play served as a good way to go into the winter. For example:

• Righty Jeff Hoffman, five days after miraculously escaping injury after being hit near his right kneecap by a near-100 mph line drive, gave up a walk and a two-run Yasmani Grandal homer to start the game, but yielded no further runs in five innings.

• Nuñez, who was called up from Albuquerque in August but has missed time recently because of illness, homered in the seventh inning to begin the comeback.

• Hilliard, who finished his first big league callup hitting .273 with seven homers in 27 games, worked the count from 0-2 to a walk from Faria to open the 13th. Yonathan Daza bunted for a single, but it turned out no one had arrived at first for catcher Jacob Nottingham’s throw -- so Hilliard went all the way to third on the throwing error, then scored on the errant pitch.

“I looked around at one point, and everybody on the field but one person had played in Albuquerque at some point toward the end of the game,” Hilliard said. “It’s a good feeling to know we can compete with some of the best teams out there.”

They must, since depth was one of the weaknesses that felled the Rockies.

Johnson hopes Sunday’s last outing was a step toward becoming a part of the depth on a club that will return in 2020 with postseason goals.

“I’m going to do everything I need to do to put myself in the best possible spot,” Johnson said.

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