Opening series full of learning moments for Rockies

April 1st, 2024

PHOENIX -- The Rockies’ chance to split the season-opening four-game set with the Diamondbacks tipped off the end of left fielder Nolan Jones’ glove in the fifth inning on Sunday at Chase Field.

The error on Ketel Marte’s fly ball led to a two-run frame and a 5-1 defeat for Colorado.

“I misread it, I drifted a little bit and it caught the edge of my glove -- it’s a play I’ve got to make,” Jones said. “Not acceptable.”

The doom of the 16-1 loss in Thursday night’s opener, on the heels of last year’s 103 losses, certainly had many wondering if misery would be daily. But the Rockies took the third game, and the ills that led to the final-game loss, while not acceptable, are correctable.

So Sunday’s game -- and the full series -- provided an early-season road map to more competitive baseball.

Here are some mileposts:

Play the defense that’s expected
The Rockies were down, 3-1, before Jones’ error that let in one run. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., a nightmare for the Rockies all series, followed with an RBI double.

There were three bad defense incidents in the first inning as well:

• Catcher Jacob Stallings bounced a throw into center on Diamondbacks leadoff man Corbin Carroll’s steal attempt.

• Starter Ryan Feltner had Gurriel picked off first, but second baseman Brendan Rodgers and shortstop Ezequiel Tovar arrived at second base at the same time.

The convergence was explainable. With the right-handed Christian Walker up, Rodgers would cover on a steal. But with Toglia throwing, Tovar was facing him, moving for the bag and screaming for the ball. Rodgers snared it to be safe and made the tag.

Gurriel was credited with a steal -- after a replay review -- so there was no error. But two runs scored instead of one when Walker homered.

“To me, he looked out,” said Rodgers, who took an inadvertent elbow to the head from Gurriel. “We do need to be on the same page. That’s on us.”

• Third baseman Ryan McMahon booted a Eugenio Suárez grounder, extending the inning.

“Very uncharacteristic of a group that takes a lot of pride in defense,” Rockies manager Bud Black said.

Don’t fall behind immediately
All four games found the Rockies behind after the bottom of the first. Kyle Freeland served up a Gurriel two-run shot in Thursday night’s opener (of course, his first inning wasn’t nearly as painful as his third); Cal Quantrill surrendered back-to-back homers to Gurriel and Walker on Friday; and Austin Gomber yielded two first-inning runs in Saturday’s Rockies victory -- one in which Jones was a positive factor.

The aforementioned poor first-inning defense was especially troublesome because Feltner pitched well between the first and Jones’ error. But Feltner had to work, needing 28 pitches to get through the first, including nine for Carroll’s leadoff walk.

Feltner, who allowed five runs (but only three earned) in his five innings, said the fix is adhering to pitching principles throughout and not overemphasizing the first inning.

“I'm going to chalk that up to a fluky thing, something that we're not thinking too much about as a staff,” Feltner said. “It’s still early in the season, and maybe it's just jitters early on.”

Make adjustments when the early plan isn’t working
Rockies batters improved their plans throughout. Although the big inning didn’t come, the thought may count as the season progresses.

The Rockies had little history against Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Pfaadt before Sunday, and it showed when Pfaadt struck out six of the first 10 batters faced. Four of those K’s -- Jones twice, Elehuris Montero and Jake Cave -- were looking.

Hitters, though, checked video, talked and adjusted. In the fifth, the Rockies scored a run on a Stallings hit into left with one out, and Pfaadt hit Tovar to load the bases. But Jones popped out to third base and Montero grounded out to short.

“That was our chance to really get the momentum on our side in the middle part of the game,” Black said.

At the start, hitters had problems picking up Pfaadt’s combination of a four-seam fastball that cuts and a sinker. But in the fifth, the Rockies manufactured a modicum of momentum before Jones’ miscue.

“That’s really important, to communicate as a team, go back and watch at-bats and talk to the hitting coaches,” Rodgers said. “Maybe they see something we don’t. It’s important while the starter is still in to capitalize on little things.”