CHICAGO — Maybe the Colorado Rockies doomed themselves to failure at lower altitudes by naming themselves after a massive mountain range.
Yeah, it’s Denver, the Mile High City, and it’s a defining characteristic of the city and franchise and all that. But to have that mountain logo wherever they go is a constant reminder that there is, truly, no place like home. The nearer they get to sea level, the more the Rockies become like Superman nearing a reunion on Krypton.
Sound like bunk? Sure. But how else can you explain one of the more remarkable numbers in baseball: One. That’s how many times the Rockies have had a winning record on the road, and this is the 25th year since Colorado joined the big leagues. That one season was 2009, when Colorado went 41-40 away from Coors Field and made the playoffs. The next-best mark was in 2007, when they were 39-42 and went on to take the National League pennant.
You can see where this is headed: The Rockies beat the Cubs 5-3 at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon, and there was nothing remarkable about something that is becoming routine. Their starting pitcher, rookie German Marquez, got squeezed a bit on strike calls in the early going, sending his pitch count soaring and spurring manager Bud Black to take him out after three innings. But the Rockies’ bullpen held Chicago to a single run over the final six frames.
“Every game is different,” Black said. “Right from the get-go, our starter had a tough first inning. He battled through 80 pitches, which is quite a few over three innings. Then our bullpen came in.”
Closer Greg Holland walked the bases full in the ninth, but he’s about as affected by nervous energy as Hannibal Lecter. He got Ben Zobrist on a shallow fly and struck out Jason Heyward to end the game, recording his 23rd save in 23 tries. Four of the five Colorado runs came on a pair of two-run homers, one each by Ryan Hanigan and Charlie Blackmon.
This is the formula the Rockies have followed all season. Sure, there have been a couple of Coors Field games, including a 15-12 loss to Washington. But for the most part, it has been defense, pitching and timely hitting. You know, baseball stuff.
More than ever, the Rockies seem to be rendering the conundrum of winning on the road a nonstory.
Forget the road struggles. With their sixth straight win Friday, Colorado has won its last four road games and is 23-10 away from Coors. This is a team that won just 21 road games for the entire season just three years ago.
“Hitting with runners in scoring position, starting staff has been really good, and we’ve been really good as a bullpen,” Holland said. “I think it’s the sign of a complete team when you can do those things.”
The obvious question is to wonder how this is happening. When you ask someone on the Rockies about it, the stock answer seems to be something to the effect of, “We don’t care where we play. We believe we will win every night.” I’m pretty sure that’s almost exactly what D.J. LeMahieu said Thursday night, about two minutes after Tyler Chatwood said the same thing.
You can’t blame them for being bland in their quotes because it’s possible they don’t know the answer to the road success queries.
They probably think it’s just because they are a good team, and they are. If Washington loses Friday night, the Rockies will own the NL’s top record. Still, to offer an explanation for why the Rockies have stumbled upon their long-sought road formula is to suggest to know why they’ve had so much trouble finding it before.
The thing is, we don’t really know. There are theories, lots of theories. If any one of them were correct, chances are pretty good that the Rockies would have found a way to counteract them at some point over the past quarter century.
“We’re in a good groove as a team right now,” Hanigan said. “We have to get greedy and try to win as many as we can while we’re playing well. Starting pitching, bullpen, defense and, obviously, offense are all clicking right now. Different guys come up big on different days.
“There is great chemistry here, and we’re playing great baseball on the road. We play well on the road.”
What we can do with certainty is point out the ways these Rockies are better than most, if not all, of their predecessors:
— Road ERA (3.30 entering Friday’s game) is nearly a half-run better than any previous Rockies club. The home ERA (4.83) ranks eighth in franchise history.
— They also are at franchise-best levels in road strikeout rate (8.4 per nine innings) and road strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.72)
— Whereas the offense’s home OPS (.817) ranks 22nd in team history, the road OPS (.728) ranks fourth
— According to Fangraphs.com, the Rockies are on pace for 59 defensive runs saved. That would be 25 more than any other season in their database, going back to 2002. Their .286 average allowed on balls in play is, you guessed it, on pace to be yet another franchise-best mark.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen with them is how well they’re pitching,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Yesterday’s game was an example. They beat us 4-1. I think a lot of times in the past, they may have scored four runs but given up six or seven. They are just pitching at a different level right now.”
It’s easy to read those numbers and think that the Rockies were built to win on the road, perhaps even over excelling at Coors. If so, it’s working. But it’s also too easy of an explanation. We are 10 weeks into the season and a lot of those numbers could regress. The starting rotation is a ground ball-heavy staff that doesn’t miss a lot of bats as compared with the rest of the league. The bullpen has been lights out, but just last year, it was lights off, and Holland didn’t play at all while rehabbing from surgery.
Maybe it holds up, or maybe it doesn’t. But we know this: When the Rockies have had their most road success, it has resulted in October baseball. And so far this season, this group is playing better on the road than any before it. You can draw your own conclusions from that, but, suffice to say, it’s an awfully exciting time to be a Colorado Rockies fan.