'Losing cannot be OK': Rockies eye culture change for '23
LOS ANGELES – Left-handed starting pitcher Kyle Freeland understands the reasons behind the Rockies' youth movement at the end of this season. But on Friday, the eve of his final regular-season start of 2022, he warned that learning won't be valued above winning in '23.
“There needs to be somewhat of a culture change of how we go about our day-to-day business, where losing cannot be OK in everyone's mind,” Freeland said. “It can't be OK.”
By Saturday night’s end, Freeland had laid out a standard that wasn’t met -- in the most excruciating way -- in the Rockies’ 6-4 loss to the Dodgers.
After Freeland’s 5 2/3 strong innings with a season high-tying eight strikeouts, reliever Justin Lawrence fanned Mookie Betts to end the sixth. Ryan McMahon and Randal Grichuk hit (rare) road home runs, the latter’s a three-run shot that was just the Rockies’ seventh with runners in scoring position in a road game this season and the first since Aug. 4 in San Diego.
But then the bullpen tied a club record with six walks in the seventh inning to lose the lead.
This 11th loss in the last 12 was particularly demoralizing. The Rockies are 0-5 on a nine-game season-ending road trip. This time, the Rockies left some of their younger position players on the bench and gave the 110-win Dodgers the best their thinned-out roster could offer. Freeland was keen to correct his poor previous performance, seven runs (six earned) in 2 2/3 innings in Sunday’s home finale against the Padres.
Yet it was all undone.
“It was definitely tough to watch, especially myself leaving the team in a winning position through six innings,” said Freeland, who signed a five-year extension early this season and wants to win during the life of the deal. “Then we get into winning time, seven through nine, and it goes south.
“Those guys weren’t trying to do that. But it’s definitely something that has to be cleaned up if you want to be a big league bullpen reliever.”
How indigestible was the pitching in the seventh, when the Rockies lost a 4-1 lead? Gavin Hollowell brought the seventh to a merciful end, continued into the eighth and gave up three hits and two runs. Yet he was by far the best the Rockies had to offer when it mattered.
Dinelson Lamet opened the seventh with three walks, and Chad Smith replaced him to walk two more. Five straight walks to begin an inning had never happened in Rockies history, and it was the first time any team had reached that low since the Rays on July 7, 2007, against the Royals. Until Cody Bellinger’s game-tying sacrifice fly, 30 pitches had been thrown and none were hit into play.
“That was not a Major League inning, I’ll put it that way,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “It was ugly. No doubt about it. We gifted the Dodgers that seventh inning.”
The Rockies didn’t punt in 2022.
They signed Kris Bryant, but it backfired when injuries limited him to 42 games and deflated the offense. They traded for Grichuk. They continued locking up key pieces. It didn’t work and the only move the club made at the Trade Deadline was scooping up Lamet (traded from the Padres, released by the Brewers), who generally pitched well for the club before Saturday.
September brought a pivot to younger players. However, veterans warn that a tryout camp mentality can’t permeate the club when ’23 starts.
Brendan Rodgers, who has five hits in the two games with the Dodgers, said he has leaned on Charlie Blackmon and McMahon, who were part of postseason teams in 2017 and 2018, and called upon himself to “be a little bit more outgoing and vocal, but I’m trying to do my best by leading by example.”
McMahon, who has found his power and reached 20 home runs for the third time in four seasons, pointed to intangible qualities that need to happen to put away games like Saturday’s.
“It is an attitude change,” McMahon said. “The culture is good. We have the right people. But I think we need a little more edge … toward the other team. It’s not just go out there and play baseball.”
Freeland was part of a rookie-populated rotation when the Rockies went from also-ran to the postseason in ’17. Vets set expectations then, and must now.
“There are conversations that need to be had, and will be had, of how we go about day-to-day stuff, and how we need to mentally be prepared, every single game,” Freeland said. “About ‘Hey, this is truly what we want to do,’ and everyone has to be bought in.”