In stacked NL West, Rockies must be ready to attack

Mar 31, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Colorado Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon (19) hits a solo home run during the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks inning at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Opportunities to score runs come few and far between against elite pitchers in Major League Baseball. The Colorado Rockies experienced that firsthand on Saturday night in Arizona against four-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.

The key to getting victories against pitchers of Greinke’s caliber? Being ready to pounce on mistakes in the rare instances they occur.

Charlie Blackmon did just that against Greinke and helped deliver a clutch 2-1 victory in the final game of Colorado’s season-opening series against the Diamondbacks.

Greinke cruised through the first five innings Saturday night, striking out eight and allowing just three hits to that point.

Blackmon came to the plate at the top of the sixth and sent the first pitch he saw from Greinke that inning, a curveball left over the middle of the plate, 408 feet over the right-field wall to tie the ballgame.

Rockies Manager Bud Black said postgame that Blackmon’s aggressive approach over the past few seasons — something that helped produce a batting title and set and MLB record for RBIs out of the leadoff spot in 2017 — is something the club as a whole is trying to adopt.

“He’s a good hitter. I think he’s really come into his own the last couple years. He’s dangerous, and I think Charlie’s proven that he’s got to be feared from the first pitch on,” Black said. “We’re talking about that a little bit as a group, too. From the first pitch on, be ready.”

Colorado this season will face more than their fair share of pitchers of Greinke’s quality playing in the National League West. The Dodgers have four 10-game winners returning from 2017, including three-time Cy Young Clayton Kershaw. The Giants have two-time All-Star and World Series winner Johnny Cueto, plus three-time World Series winner and World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner (when he recovers from a broken hand). And Arizona also has Robbie Ray, who had a breakout season in 2017, winning 15 games.

The Rockies will have to be aggressive agains that gauntlet of great starters if they hope to compete for their first division title in club history.

Arizona was aggressive against the Rockies in the first two games of the series, touching Rockies starters Jon Gray for three runs and Tyler Anderson for five. Black, who has pitched in and won a World Series, knows firsthand how important that readiness is on both sides of the ball.

“From the opponent’s standpoint — and I lived it — if the guy in the box is ready to hit, the pitcher knows it and you’ve got to be careful with that first one. If you’re not — heads up. You throw a ball, it’s 1-0 and you start getting into bad counts as a hitter. So, it’s good to see.”

Blackmon was aggressive in his next at-bat, this time against Fernando Salas, swinging and missing at a first-pitch change up. Salas missed with a fastball on his next pitch and Blackmon made the righty pay, knocking his second home run of the game and third on the young season to give Colorado a 2-1 lead. The run would stand as the game-winner.

Saturday’s win not only demonstrated the importance of attacking quality pitchers, but also how vital strong starting pitching performances will be for Colorado this year.

Gray and Anderson put Colorado in a hole early in the first two games of the year, games the Rockies ultimately dropped.

German Marquez on Saturday matched Greinke with 5.0 innings and one unearned run allowed.

“It’s such a sample of three games, Black said. “You see what a starting pitching performance that keeps you in the game — even though it was only five innings, he kept us in the game. From there, we got a couple good swings from Charlie, and the bullpen did an incredible job.”

Colorado’s bullpen pitched four scoreless innings, with Bryan Shaw earning his first win in a Rockies uniform, Jake McGee earning his first hold of the 2018 season, and closer Wade Davis earning a save in his first appearance since signing the largest contract ever given to a relief pitcher.

“It was a good baseball game. It was a good win,” Black said.

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