Newly named closer Kinley finds instant success with easy save

September 6th, 2023

PHOENIX -- For nearly a month, Rockies right-handed reliever has spent time reliving his career struggles with fellow bullpen members who are living theirs for the first time.

“When you struggle, you feel like you’re the only one that’s struggling, the only one that’s ever done that and whatnot,” Kinley said Tuesday afternoon. “One of the biggest ways to relate to guys is to let them know, ‘Hey, I’ve done that,’ or, ‘I’ve done worse.’

“In a Major League game, I’ve given up five runs without recording an out. I can go all the way back to high school and college, not really having an opportunity to play and sneaking my way into the door. There are lots of ways that you can relate.”

But Kinley, 32, who was installed as the Rockies’ closer just before the game, picked the best way to pick up his mates Tuesday night. He threw a spotless ninth inning to preserve a 3-2 victory over the D-backs at Chase Field.

Say all you want about the D-backs being in the Wild Card race and the Rockies possibly heading for their first 100-loss season in their history. The Rockies needed this more desperately, standings be darned.

More specifically, the beleaguered relief staff needed it most. How much?

The bullpen needed it even more than hard-luck starter Kyle Freeland, who worked around six hits in six innings and left with the lead. While he has had more than his share of bad starts, he’s also too often suffered from little run support. So Freeland, who didn’t have his best fastball but leaned heavily on a changeup grip that he made up two days ago and threw for five pitches Tuesday, walked away 6-14 but happy.

And yet there were folks who appreciated it even more.

After Freeland departed, relievers Matt Koch, Jake Bird and Kinley went six up, six down. It’s the way good teams do it.

Since Aug. 14, the start of a home series against the D-backs, the Rockies have outscored their opponents in the first six innings, 85-71. From the seventh inning on, however, they have been outscored, 59-22. Folks like Bird and Justin Lawrence, whom manager Bud Black informed that he was being moved out of the ninth inning (7.58 ERA in 19 games since the All-Star break), could use a little success. Both are in their first full Major League season.

Because the Rockies sent veterans Pierce Johnson and Brad Hand to the Braves in separate deals before the Trade Deadline, and Daniel Bard is on the 15-day injured list with right forearm fatigue, there is little experience on the relief staff.

Only Kinley and lefty Brent Suter have deep bullpen experience. Koch, 32, spent a year in the D-backs’ rotation, but his 29 appearances this season are a career high. Nick Mears (42 career games), Gavin Hollowell (22) and Evan Justice (four) all have found themselves pitching in the repeatedly tight Rockies games.

Rockies baseball lately has been thrilling, but wins like Tuesday’s have been few.

“Hopefully, that’s a momentum-builder for them,” Black said. “Those guys are conscientious of what’s been going on. They know their role. They know the importance of their job, based on the type of games that we’ve been playing.

“We haven’t scored a ton of runs, and our starting pitching has been solid. Every night for the last few weeks, it’s games like today.”

Every day after is full of study sessions. Pitching coach Darryl Scott meets with the ‘pen as a whole each day. Black, a former pitcher, said he is involved but Scott and bullpen coach Reid Cornelius are empowered -- especially with inexperienced pitchers.

It’s not just that they’re learning, they are learning how to learn.

But lessons go much smoother when they’re given at the end of wins. Kinley rescued Lawrence for a save on Saturday at home against the Blue Jays. Tuesday’s save was just the third of his career, but his experience as setup man and time learning from veterans he crossed paths with made him the clear choice as closer for now.

“We’re starting to see the pieces of the turnaround,” Kinley said. “We have to be excited about it. It’s hard not to like what you see when things are going well. But we have to learn how to make quick adjustments, not only for now but adjustments for years to come. Then guys can build momentum for next year.”

And maybe, like Kinley, the rest of the relievers can experience good times and tell the story of the rough times of 2023.