DENVER -- Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela used to pitch the hard way, usually staying in the strike zone with two pitches, employing the strikeout rarely and keeping his fielders busy.
Well, 2020 is different. For Senzatela and the other starters who have worked this season, that’s a good thing.
On Sunday afternoon, Senzatela fanned six -- one shy of his career high -- and held the Padres to one run in six innings as the Rockies won, 9-6, to take two of three in their first home series of 2020.
“It’s really important to me to put the batters away in less pitches,” said Senzatela, who threw 86 pitches. “It’s a huge part of the game right now, because I can limit the runners on and the damage. I feel pretty good with that.”
A starting rotation that fueled postseason appearances in 2017 and ’18 -- but faltered last year and was maligned coming into this one -- is giving new hope in this condensed schedule.
The four starters the Rockies have used while building a 6-2 start have a sparkling 2.00 ERA. A fifth starter, righty Chi Chi González, will join the rotation Monday night in the opener of four games against the Giants.
Senzatela (2-0) has typified the starters’ growth.
Last year, Senzatela struck out 76 in 124 2/3 innings, but he is avoiding the bats this year. It’s not Nolan Ryan territory, but the right-hander has nine strikeouts in 11 innings this year.
According to MLB Quality of Pitch, which uses Statcast-measured data for its formulas, Senzatela’s four-seam fastball ranked in the top 22% in vertical movement, the top 26% in location and the top 18% in overall quality among MLB pitchers.
But he had work to do to get the fastball to play off his other pitches.
Last September, Senzatela incorporated his curve. During the offseason, he simplified his delivery and dropped 15 pounds. He also incorporated advanced information to improve his breaking pitches. And a finger nerve issue that caused discomfort throwing the changeup has resolved itself.
“It’s all come together the first two starts,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “The trick is to continue it, be consistent and give us a chance to win every time.”
Interestingly, Senzatela didn’t vary much from the fastball and slider -- pitches that have helped him to a 27-22 record in his first three seasons (2017-19) but also became so predictable that his ERA ballooned to 6.71 last year. On Sunday, he threw 45 four-seamers and 24 sliders.
But Senzatela’s success Sunday also was attributable to how he used his curveball. He threw nine curveballs. One was taken for a strike, and five -- including put-away pitches to Fernando Tatis Jr. and Trent Grisham in the sixth inning -- were swinging strikes.
The curve got him into trouble once. With Jake Cronenworth on third with two outs in that sixth inning, Senzatela thought he had Manny Machado set up for a curve with the count 1-2. But Machado anticipated it and drove a run-scoring double.
“I thought the curveball was the best pitch right there, but I just left it in the middle,” Senzatela said. “He’s a good hitter, and I paid.”
But being willing to be beaten on an off-speed pitch is often the key to winning.
As an indication of the Padres being off-balance, Senzatela accumulated 16 whiffs (swings-and-misses) and 14 called strikes. Each of his four pitches -- he also used a changeup -- built the count in each category.
Adaptability is a theme throughout the rotation.
While striking out eight at Oakland on Wednesday, No. 1 starter German Márquez pitched against his reputation for leaning on outside fastballs and sliders.
In the opener against the Padres on Friday, Jon Gray planned to go off-speed against an aggressive lineup but didn’t have his changeup. So he used four-seamers for 5 2/3 effective innings.
On Saturday, lefty Kyle Freeland saw how Gray pitched and went opposite, throwing 29 changeups – second most in a start in his career.
“All our guys are showing a change of speeds, in and out, up and down -- they’re pitching,” Black said. “They’re not throwing.”
Even more, they’re sharing.
“We just pass it around, every day -- ‘OK, you’ve got the next day, go get ’em’” Senzatela said. “We just help each other with communication about the hitters.”