Mile High Sports

Rockies need more punch from their 1-2 combination atop the rotation

Apr 14, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jon Gray (55) throws to the Washington Nationals during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I will preface this column by saying that Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson are both talented pitchers and even better men. My interactions with both, although limited, have always been quite positive. Even following losses, each pitcher is respectful and honest with the media. One might even describe them as contemplative in defeat. Perhaps those attitudes are part of the problem.

The Colorado Rockies are 9-8 after a dramatic 6-5 victory over the Nationals in Washington this weekend. Colorado took the series 3-1 to push their record back over .500, good enough for second place in the National League West. With just over 10 percent of their games played, Colorado is a half-game back of a Wild Card spot (if those things matter with 90 percent of the season remaining). Of Colorado’s nine victories, the top two pitchers in the rotation — Gray and Anderson — account for just one. While the season is still young, the Rockies will need more punch from the 1-2 combination atop their rotation if they are going to remain in contention when the numbers are flipped and only 10 percent of the season remains.

This weekend’s four-game series with Washington provides a perfect case study for what the Rockies can expect if they are truly contenders in September, specifically the games started by Gray and Anderson.

The powers in the National League all boast a knockout 1-2 punch atop the rotation.

Los Angeles has Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood. Arizona has Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray. The Mets have Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. Even San Francisco is dangerous when Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are both healthy. And then there is Washington, with possibly the best 1-2 combo in the National League, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Those are the arms Colorado will have to beat — potentially multiple times in a seven-game series in the playoffs, or perhaps in a weekend series to clinch.

Rockies fans don’t need much of a reminder how dominant that last duo can be. Scherzer on Saturday sat down 20 consecutive Rockies after allowing a two-run home run to Charlie Blackmon in the first inning (the only hit Scherzer allowed, in fact). He struck out 11 and walked just one. On Sunday Strasburg was nearly as dominant for the first five innings he pitched. A Blackmon solo home run was the only hit he allowed until the Rockies scrapped together three more runs in the sixth. His day ended with five strikeouts to one walk.

Scherzer won the Cy Young Award in 2017 and showed no signs of relinquishing that crown based on his performance against Colorado — the Nats’ only win in the series. Strasburg, meanwhile, did not earn his third win of the 2018 season to match Scherzer, but he also did not factor into the decision. The outing was a small sample of why Strasburg finished third in Cy Young voting behind Scherzer and Kershaw last year.

Neither Gray nor Anderson pitched particularly poorly against Washington. However, neither pitched particularly well, either. Anderson earned a no-decision, like Strasburg. Gray matched Scherzer nearly pitch for pitch through five innings. He even had a 2-1 lead entering the sixth. But, alas, Gray had a troublesome inning and took his third loss of the season to fall to 1-3. He struck out six and walked only one, but allowed eight hits over his 5.2 innings.

Together, they struck out 12 Nationals hitters. They also walked seven, with six of those coming from Anderson. They also combined for just 10.1 innings pitched.

Colorado split those two games, 1-1, thanks to a stronger bullpen effort than the Nats could muster on Sunday. However, it will put great strain on that bullpen if Gray and Anderson don’t start eating more innings (and the offense, which ranked 27th in baseball in batting average entering play Sunday, doesn’t start putting up some more consistent runs).

Through the first 17 games, Colorado’s big-money bullpen has paid dividends. The Rockies’ average margin of victory this season is 2.0 runs. They have just one win by a margin of greater than three runs (5-1 over Washington on Thursday). Reliever Adam Ottavino leads the team with a 3-0 record. The bullpen on the whole accounts for six of Colorado’s nine wins.

That’s mission accomplished so far for General Manager Jeff Bridich, but Manager Bud Black has been pressing the bullpen button with great frequency. That proved a challenge in 2017 when Greg Holland faded down the stretch, possibly because of overuse. Could the same be coming for Wade Davis, who is presently tied for the NL lead in saves and ranks second among closers in appearances? Bryan Shaw in the Washington series began showing signs that he can’t pitch in practically every game (despite his reputation) and still remain effective. Ottavino wasn’t going to stay perfect all season, as Sunday proved.

It all traces back to Gray and Anderson needing to do more.

Gray is 1-3 to start the year. His ERA is 6.23 and he is averaging just 5.1 innings per start. Anderson has yet to register a decision. Although his ERA is 4.74, Anderson is averaging just 4.2 innings per start. Colorado is 3-5 in their combined eight starts.

It’s hard to believe that Gray and Anderson are ready to take the leap necessary in 2018 to become the imposing, intimidating duo atop the rotation that Scherzer and Strasburg are.

Scherzer after making the mistake to Blackmon went on lockdown. Gray seemed at times like he was holding on for dear life. He finally let slip, as he has done too often in big games. His lone dominant start this season came in San Diego, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, against what is expected to be one of the worst teams when the season is done.

Strasburg sailed through five innings before running into trouble in the sixth. Despite his four earned runs allowed, he surrendered just four hits and one walk while striking out five. Anderson, who allowed just one earned run (because the other two runs on his ledger scored on an Antonio Senzatela wild pitch and Chris Iannetta error), danced around six walks before exiting the game in the fifth. Had Anderson not walked the bases loaded, Senzatela wouldn’t have even been in the game.

Gray and Anderson are both dangerous pitchers. On any given day either one can handcuff a team and put the Rockies in a position to win. But pitchers like Scherzer and Strasburg don’t just deliver performances like that “on any given day.” They post them practically every day they take the ball.

Kershaw and Wood, Greinke and Ray, and Bumgarner and Cueto make the National League one of the best divisions in baseball for 1-2 combinations. Survive the division and the Mets and Nationals could be waiting in the playoffs with Syndergaard and deGrom, Scherzer and Strasburg.

Any one of those pitchers mentioned above has demonstrated a killer instinct — the willingness to come out swinging to win a big game. Gray and Anderson have not yet developed it. They are a talented 1-2 punch, but they’re still far from being a knockout combination as this weekend demonstrated.