Black’s first sea­son with Rocks has be­come a pitch­ing tu­to­rial

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Groke

Bud Black whisked away to Wy­oming last week for all-star break R&R in search of a fly-fish­ing spot with some soli­tude. But he will never es­cape be­ing a pitcher. The first-year Rock­ies man­ager sees the game first and al­ways from the mound.

Over a lit­tle more than three months, the Rock­ies un­der Black are pitch­ing bet­ter than they have in seven years, with an ERA for starters that would rank third in club his­tory, be­hind only 2010 and 2009, the last time the Rock­ies played in the post­sea­son, and even bet­ter than 2007, the year they reached the World Se­ries.

In 25 years of Rock­ies base­ball, the com­mon motto for vic­tory has nearly al­ways been the need to outscore the op­po­nent. The pri­or­ity at Coors Field was al­ways of­fense first, then of­fense se­cond, then cross some fin­gers and hope and pray for some pitch­ing.

In quick or­der, those pri­or­i­ties have changed. The Rock­ies proved over three months how to pitch and win at al­ti­tude. They also proved how to pitch poorly and lose, with a two-week stretch that sank them from first place to third in the Na­tional League West.

“We have to pitch well,” Black told The Den­ver Post. “That’s the most im­por­tant thing.”

The Los An­ge­les Dodgers have a big lead in the best divi­sion in

base­ball. At the all-star break, they were on pace for 109 wins be­hind the best start­ing and re­lief pitch­ing in the league. If the Rock­ies are to cap­ture a play­off berth, do­ing so will al­most surely be on the shoul­ders of the youngest ro­ta­tion in base­ball.

And it will fall to their man­ager, a 15-year pitcher now in his 10th sea­son man­ag­ing in the NL West. Black’s re­spon­si­bil­ity has largely evolved into teach­ing and guid­ing a rookie-heavy ro­ta­tion that has four first-year pitch­ers with an av­er­age age of 23 — Kyle Free­land, Ger­man Mar­quez, An­to­nio Sen­za­tela and Jeff Hoff­man.

Col­lec­tively they have a 4.21 ERA, which would rank them sixth over­all in the NL, and a well-above-av­er­age park-ad­justed Era-plus, ac­cord­ing to Base­ball Ref­er­ence.

“I haven’t had this many young pitch­ers, es­pe­cially young starters, at any time in my ca­reer,” Black said. “There’s def­i­nitely an el­e­ment of pa­tience you have to have. Be­cause it is hard. It’s bap­tism un­der fire. They are learn­ing in the big leagues at 23 years old. But you have to be ex­posed some­time.

“And they’re not go­ing back­ward in any way,” he added. “They’re do­ing good work and we’re stay­ing on top of them, both on the teach­ing side and the men­tal side.”

His pitch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence has given Black a lee­way that didn’t ex­ist in years past. He is steer­ing the Rock­ies’ rookie arms with­out cod­dling them, di­rect­ing them through new ex­pe­ri­ences while let­ting them loose. Colorado gen­eral man­ager Jeff Bridich said the bar is higher.

“I look at that with a keen eye on his ex­pe­ri­ence with pitch­ers,” Bridich said of Black. “His com­pet­i­tive­ness and ex­pec­ta­tion to come ev­ery day to play well, and win, has been big.”

Black’s coun­sel with his pitch­ing staff came in full view last Sun­day, when Free­land car­ried a no-hit­ter against the Chicago White Sox into the ninth in­ning at Coors Field. No other pitcher in Rock­ies his­tory, let alone a rookie, had reached the ninth in Den­ver with­out al­low­ing a hit.

Be­fore the eighth in­ning, Black pulled back vet­eran catcher Ryan Hani­gan for a conference at the top step of the Rock­ies’ dugout. Hani­gan, now in his 11th sea­son be­hind the plate, can think along with his man­ager in a no-non­sense ap­proach to throw­ing strikes and sim­pli­fy­ing the process of pitch­ing.

Free­land’s pitch count was run­ning high, well be­yond the un­spo­ken lim­its of re­cent sea­sons. Black let Free­land go. But he told Hani­gan to be­ware. It was no time to mess around try­ing to bait a bat­ter into chas­ing.

“I knew. And he knew. And he knew I knew,” Hani­gan said. “You have to love Bud giv­ing him a chance to do it.”

Jon Gray, a Colorado old-timer in this ro­ta­tion at age 25, re­turned June 30 from a bro­ken foot to strike out 10 and walk just one in a vic­tory at Ari­zona. His place atop the staff is se­cure. From there, it will fall to Black to de­ter­mine an evolv­ing ro­ta­tion of seven oth­ers — the rook­ies joined by 27-yearolds Tyler Chat­wood and Tyler An­der­son (out for a month af­ter knee surgery) and Chad Bet­tis, who pitched his first re­hab game Thurs­day night for Dou­ble-a Hart­ford, com­ing back from can­cer.

The Rock­ies en­tered the all-star break well on their way to­ward the post­sea­son, 7½ games ahead of the Chicago Cubs for one of two wild-card play­off berths, and just 2½ games be­hind the Diamondbacks. The Rock­ies’ se­cond half, like the first, prob­a­bly will hinge on the mound.

And if Black — the first for­mer pitcher to oc­cupy the man­ager’s of­fice in the Rock­ies’ club­house at Coors Field — is re­spon­si­ble for build­ing up what may be the most tal­ented young staff in club his­tory, his tu­to­rial will need to carry into Oc­to­ber.

“We’re untested, when it comes to where we think we’ll be in a cou­ple months,” Black said. “But that’s cool. I like that. It has to hap­pen some­time. Might as well hap­pen right now.”

“I haven’t had this many young pitch­ers, es­pe­cially young starters, at any time in my ca­reer. There’s def­i­nitely an el­e­ment of pa­tience you have to have. Be­cause it is hard. It’s bap­tism un­der fire. They are learn­ing in the big leagues at 23 years old. But you have to be ex­posed some­time.” Rock­ies man­ager Bud Black, on his young pitch­ing staff

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Rock­ies man­ager Bud Black says of his team: “We have to pitch well. That’s the most im­por­tant thing.”

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Bud Black, the first for­mer pitcher to man­age the Rock­ies, calls the bullpen dur­ing a re­cent game at Coors Field.

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