Black focused on Rockies' future: 'I've always liked an underdog story'

October 1st, 2023

DENVER -- Rockies infielders behind rookie right-handed relief pitcher Tommy Doyle crept to the front edge of the infield with a runner at third and one out in the sixth inning Saturday night at Coors Field.

It didn’t matter that the postseason-bound Twins already had an eight-run lead, and the 14-6 result would become Rockies’ 103rd loss with the 162nd and final game remaining.

But manager Bud Black believes the long road to winning begins with playing like games matter. Even in the Rockies’ case they do. Or, at least, the Rockies believe that when a roster that has turned to youth grows up, the games will matter.

“I have a clear perspective on what’s going on, and in front of us,” said Black, 66, who last spring signed a contract extension through 2025 and is likely to discuss a similar contract with ownership before next season. “But from a coaching and managing standpoint, there’s a silver lining of what can be accomplished, and what can transpire in a tough year. ”

Karl Kauffmann (eight runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings) had the tough Saturday. He had two outs and two strikes on Donovan Solano, but hit him, walked Matt Wallner to load the bases and gave up Trevor Larnach’s grand slam.

With the Rockies down, 14-0, in the seventh, Elehuris Montero and Sean Bouchard tagged back-to-back homers before Brenton Doyle added a two-run shot, proving, as Black said, “You never want to get in that mode of taking at-bats off.”

From late August through September, the Rockies played exclusively teams that either will be in the postseason or contended until the final days. The majority of the losses were close games that good teams tend to win and teams like the Rockies must use as lessons.

Black has won World Series titles as a Royals player in 1985 and as a pitching coach with the Angels in 2002. But he’s also had rough seasons and other years that fell short of the postseason while managing the Padres from 2007-15, and postseason trips with the Rockies in his first two seasons (2017-18) before the five straight losing years.

To make those postseason trips, Black melded a talented but youthful starting rotation (Kyle Freeland, Germán Marquez, Antonio Senzatela are still here) with a lineup and bullpen seasoned enough to win (only Charlie Blackmon and Ryan McMahon remain).

The trick now is to maintain a standard, but realize this roster looks as if it will take a while.

“All the years that I’ve had in this game -- the championship seasons, the playoff seasons, and on the other end the tougher seasons -- you learn from all of them as a teacher, as a coach, as a manager,” Black said. “You have to treat them all the same, with a lot of respect, regardless how they’ve gone. It’s something we talk to the coaches about, the consistency of leadership.”

This year would test any leader.

The Rockies entered knowing it could be painful. They began short on starting pitcher depth. Seven starters sustained long-term injuries, as Freeland, Márquez, Senzatela, Austin Gomber, Ryan Feltner and Peter Lambert will finish the year on the injured list. The Rockies then committed to rebuilding by unloading many of their veterans.

By the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline, deals of relievers Pierce Johnson and Brad Hand to the Braves meant inexperienced relievers pitched key innings. These records resulted:

  • Through July 24, leading through six (26-9), seven (30-3) and eight innings (36-2).
  • From July 24, leading after six (41-20), seven (45-13) and eight (51-6).

Blackmon, 37, who on Friday reached a contract extension through 2024 for as much as $15 million, said Black’s ability to adapt serves this roster.

“Buddy is really good at having a pulse on where guys are and does a good job pushing when he needs to push and giving guys freedom when it’s time,” Blackmon said.

Freeland said Black is giving him and the more-experienced players the same freedom he gave the veterans who were around when he debuted in ‘17. “It’s like he’s evolved but stayed the same,” Freeland said.

The Rockies likely will go into ‘24 with rotation depth questions, and the lineup and much of the bullpen will still be finding its way. Black’s eyes are open.

But no one saw ‘17 coming, so by next Spring Training he’ll at least have something special in the back of his mind.

“Whether it’s with your Little League teams, your high school team … if things break right,” Black said. “I like teams that you say, ‘It’s a good team,’ and you end up showing it.

“But I’ve always liked the underdog story.”