Amid Rockies’ struggles, Vodnik a sign of bullpen’s progress

April 17th, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- Rockies rookie right-handed relief pitcher was all gas, with no drama on Tuesday night.

There's no denying that the Rockies are struggling. They lost to the Phillies 5-0 at Citizen Bank Park on Wednesday. Ranger Suárez struck out eight in a seven-hit shutout. The Rockies absorbed not only their second shutout of a current road trip but also their third overall this season.

Their 4-14 start is their worst after 18 games in franchise history.

But if spotty play leads to poor play, at least there are intriguing spots. Vodnik's 12 1/3 scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts to start the season counts as a spot the Rockies don't want to wash away.

By striking out two and retiring all five hitters he faced, Vodnik avoided the walks that at times threatened his scoreless beginning. He also displayed the Rockies bullpen's primary attribute -- top-end velocity. As of the end of Tuesday's game, the Rockies led the Majors in pitches thrown by relievers at 95 mph or greater.

Velocity does not always equal effectiveness, but it can help.

"We'll keep on just working," Vodnik said. "It'll get there. A lot of these games have been pretty close, just not our way. That happens. Just keep grinding. We'll win ballgames."

Vodnik, 24, entered with the Rockies down, 3-0, after lefty starter Austin Gomber's solid 5 1/3-outing. Vodnik caught J.T. Realmuto and Alec Bohm looking at third strikes.

"It's tough to do, especially when you're mixing it up a little bit, going up and down," said Vodnik, whose slowest of his 16 four-seam fastballs popped in at 96.7 mph. "I think it gets in their head a little bit. I actually quick-pitched that one and I got it there, so that's pretty cool."

Vodnik followed with a clean seventh inning with three groundouts.

In the past, Vodnik's innings haven't been as smooth. On Sunday at Toronto, he needed a one-out back-pick at third by catcher Jacob Stallings to escape his inning. But outings like Tuesday's show why the Rockies plucked him from the Braves in a Trade Deadline swap last year.

"Most Major League bullpens this day and age have velocity," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "Look at the Philly bullpen, look at the Blue Jays. We have good arms, too -- inexperienced, with the exception of a guy or two. We've got to get the ball over the plate. Victor got it over the plate tonight."

The Rockies' struggle to score has cost pitchers wins in decent outings. The latest example is Austin Gomber, who gave up three runs on six hits with four strikeouts on Tuesday. The Rockies have pitched competitively for two turns through the rotation.

"I made a lot of really good pitches all night long," Gomber said. "Two mistake curveballs -- one to Bryce [Harper for a sixth-inning RBI double] at the end, one to J.T. [Realmuto for a first-inning home run] early. We made a lot of plays behind me, but obviously Ranger was unbelievable tonight."

The bullpen began the year shakily and is losing Daniel Bard to right arm flexor tendon surgery. Tyler Kinley continued his struggles with a leadoff walk and a Harper homer in the eighth. But there are signs of hard-throwing progress.

The ninth inning is a question, although Nick Mears pitched well in the ninth in Monday's 2-1, 10-inning loss to the Phillies. Justin Lawrence lost the ninth inning early, but the Rockies believe his fastball and sweeper are the stuff of a ninth-inning guy. The lone lefty, Jalen Beeks, could soon be joined by Lucas Gilbreath, who is completing rehab after last year's Tommy John surgery.

There is also an information exchange. Special baseball operations assistant and former Rox reliever Scott Oberg came to Philadelphia to lend his knowledge and serve the coaching staff. Lawrence noted this week that Vodnik has asked for advice on pitch selection and communicating with catchers. Kinley has been conscious of displaying positive body language and work habits through his struggles.

"They're open to any questions that we have and really helpful because they've been through it before and have been helping me prepare -- especially 'T.K.' with the slider," Vodnik said.

Vodnik and the other lesser-experienced relievers have the fastballs they believe will be more effective with experience.