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When the Colorado Rockies lost six straight to end the first half of the season, putting them one game under .500, it pushed them to 14.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West lead and down to fourth in the division.
The losing streak moved them only 2.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot, but it caused them to fall behind four other clubs for the 10th best record in the NL, a better indicator of their true standing in the league.
With every one of their final 73 games all the more valuable, each roster transaction, starting lineup and call to the pen becomes all the more critical and scrutinizable. The magnifying lens upon the club also extends to the order of their starting rotation to begin the second half. The pitching staff has a 5.16 earned run average, their highest team ERA before the All-Star Break since 2012 and the starting rotation has been the main culprit with an earned run average (5.57) that’s dead last in all of baseball.
Atop the list of biggest offenders contributing to this lackluster line is Kyle Freeland. Hot off a 4th place finish in the NL Cy Young Award last season, the Denver native pitched to a 7.13 ERA over 12 starts in 2019, struggling so badly that he would be optioned to the minor leagues to try to rediscover the magic from just one year prior.
After six starts with Triple-A Albuquerque, Freeland finally put it all together – his pitch mix, command, and the hanging right leg delay – during his July 3 start; over the course of seven innings, the 26-year-old gave up only one earned run and walked two while striking out nine. If the Rockies are going to surge in the second half and back into the playoffs for the third straight season, Freeland will need to factor into these plans. On Saturday, he’ll get the opportunity in game two of the second half.
In what is fundamentally the first step in a push for the playoffs, Bud Black talked about the thought process that went into the second half arrangement of the starting rotation which began with Jon Gray on Friday night and is followed by Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, German Márquez and Peter Lambert.
“Jon pitched on Friday in the first game (of the Arizona series). So, Friday-to-Friday made sense. He’s in a good spot physically. I think his stuff has improved over the last month. Let’s keep Jon right there so he pitches with two extra days,” Black said before a 3-2 victory against the Reds.
Though Senzatela and Márquez followed Gray to end the first half, both were pushed back a day. “Kyle (Freeland) has had plenty of rest since his last start. Pop him in there on Saturday and then for Senzatela, he pitched on Saturday, (so that’ll) get him three extra days of rest.
“Márquez is right up there with (Max) Scherzer, (one of) the big boys. He threw Sunday, (so we) tried to give him a bit more of a break. He had pitched Sunday, so it didn’t make sense to bring him back on Friday on regular rest or an extra day rest on Saturday, so let’s push him to Monday,” Black shared.
Though Scherzer still made his start the next day following a bunting mishap that broke his nose, it was decided that the seven-time All-Star would also receive an additional day of rest by his ball club.
The final piece of the puzzle is the 22-year-old rookie who was still plying his trade in Double-A Hartford a little more than a year ago.
“I think Peter Lambert we want to get as much rest as possible. Here’s a young guy, first time in the big leagues. He’s probably throwing bullets in January; right before Super Bowl, he’s throwing sides. So we wanted to give him a bit of a break. If he pitches into September which he’s never done before,” Black added about the young hurler.
With a career-high of 148 innings last year that culminated in a five-inning outing that effectively ended his season on September 2, the Rockies want to be careful to not overextend their top pitching prospect, especially as they hope to play well into the month of October.
Ultimately, a deep run in the playoffs is a lifetime away. For a while, the biggest game the Rockies play will be the one on the schedule that day, at least until they answer some questions about their starting rotation, reach the top Wild Card spot, and put some distance between them and the rest of the National League contenders.