BALTIMORE -- Competitive starting pitching has been a small delight during a streak that has seen the Rockies lose six straight -- including Saturday night’s 5-4 decision against the Orioles at a sold-out Camden Yards.
Right-hander Chris Flexen, a midseason pickup after a rough beginning of the season with the Mariners, kept the Rockies in the contest with seven strikeouts in five-plus innings.
Flexen gave up three runs, one in disputed fashion, and took the loss, but the performance was a plus in the grand scheme of a club that counts starting quality and depth among the areas it must address.
It’s a starting rotation that lost Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela for the season due to Tommy John surgeries -- their absences will extend into 2024.
Missing them and two others who are expected back -- Ryan Feltner (fractured skull) and Chase Anderson (right shoulder inflammation) -- has given opportunities to Flexen, 29, onetime top prospect Peter Lambert and lefty Ty Blach to make impressions toward the end of the season.
Those are places to focus for the Rockies (48-81), who are 0-5 on this road trip, have dropped 10 straight on the road and, for the first time in the franchise’s 31-season history, have multiple 10-game road losing skids.
“We’re in every game; [the starters are] keeping the score down on the other side,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “We went up against a good pitching staff in Tampa, a good pitching staff here in Baltimore. Runs are hard to come by, and therefore the games are close."
After a slow beginning with the Rockies -- six walks in 3 2/3 innings against the Athletics on July 29, when he couldn’t find the feel for any of his pitches -- Flexen has increasingly shown a solid fastball and changeup combination. All but one strikeout came on the change Saturday night.
“I continue to work on it,” said Flexen, who had a 7.71 ERA in 17 games (four starts) with the Mariners, and since the difficult Rockies debut has brought his Colorado ERA down to 5.87. “I struggled with it early on, consistency more than anything. It’s always been a big pitch in my arsenal. I throw it for strikes. I was able to do that tonight.”
Whether through veteran pickups, the MLB Draft or international signings, the Rockies are taking a shot at many different pitchers with many styles. Although Flexen forced seven groundouts and no fly-ball outs on Saturday, he often works at the top of the zone with his fastball and hunts for strikeouts.
The Rockies need the whiffs.
Flexen’s performance on Saturday gave the Rockies their Major League-low sixth game with a pitcher striking out seven or more. Flexen’s total was the highest since Austin Gomber -- the team’s best pitcher this year -- fanned seven on June 30 at home against the Tigers. Flexen’s were the most strikeouts on the road since Feltner fanned seven at Dodger Stadium on April 3.
“Chris has a 91-94 mph fastball, and an 80 mph change -- and that’s good -- with the same arm speed,” Black said. “It’s got a little late fade to lefties, and I like it against right-handed and left-handed batters.
“I repeatedly tell him it’s part of his best stuff.”
Blach, who will start the finale of the series (and road trip) on Sunday, Gomber, Lambert and Kyle Freeland have all kept games close. Flexen left with the Rockies ahead by a run, but the O’s were rewarded with a run in the fifth on a plate-blocking violation against catcher Elias Díaz. Flexen gave up two hits to open the sixth, and watched both runners score when Ryan Mountcastle’s liner off rookie reliever Tommy Doyle bounced fair for a double.
Early in the season, injuries and inconsistency plagued the rotation while relievers flourished. Now the bullpen has gone young (lefty Evan Justice fanned two while giving up a walk, a hit and a run in his Major League debut) and struggled, but starters pitching for their futures are performing better.
“Guys are showing up ready to compete every day,” Flexen said. “That’s what you build off of.”