May 29, 2023

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Rox 'pen thriving thanks to 'bend but don't break' mantra

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DENVER — When Carlos Estévez was warmed up in the bullpen — and that’s using the term “warmed” loosely on a frigid Friday night at Coors Field – he was awaiting the final out in the bottom of the seventh inning. He would be tasked with preserving a two-run Rockies lead over the Cubs, and he was preparing to take the mound at the most hitter-friendly park in the Majors for the 134th time in his career.

Then, something splashed onto his left arm. Stunned, he looked up, and a beer was heading right for his face from the right-field stands.

“It landed in my eye,” Estévez said. “It was getting pretty bad out there with the cold, the wind [and then the beer]. But we put some eye drops in there. We’re gonna be fine.”

In the end, everything was fine, because the Rockies held on to beat the Cubs, 6-5, for their fifth win in seven games to open the season. But had this game been played last season, it may not have turned out fine. 

Colorado’s bullpen had a 26th-ranked ERA (4.91) in 2021. The biggest question mark facing the club entering ’22 was its relief corps. And now, seven games into the season, Rockies relievers own a 0.86 ERA, by far the best in baseball.

That ERA stood at 0.68 entering Friday’s contest against Chicago, but while the Rockies’ bullpen issued five walks and worked into and out of trouble for 4 2/3 trying innings, it emerged victorious again, this time overcoming more than just its home ballpark — whether it was beer in the eyes, temperatures in the low 40s, or those pesky Cubs grinding out good at-bats all night, Rockies relievers lived by a mantra that may serve them well the rest of the season.

“Bend but don’t break,” Estévez said. “We’ve got the lead, we’ve gotta keep it. If we’re losing by one or two, we’ve gotta keep it right there.”

Estévez’s ERA in four appearances this season remains pristine, at 0.00. But that eighth inning was no cake walk after the beer left a burning sensation in his eyes, eye drops notwithstanding. He walked three and had to turn the ball over to Tyler Kinley, who got the final out of the eighth by striking out Willson Contreras.

“Every once in a while you’re gonna get one of those [innings] in your way,” Estévez said. “If you can manage it and get through the inning — I mean, I didn’t get through the inning, but T.K. had my back, and that’s what we’ve gotta do in the bullpen. That’s just perfect right there.”

If the Rockies’ bullpen is going to be successful this season, it will have to navigate the treacherous environment in which it must perform for half the season with aplomb. There will be ugly innings. Balls will fall in the cavernous Coors outfield. Things will happen. But if the ’pen is able to do what it did Friday night consistently, the Rockies could be a much more dangerous team than anyone thought heading into the season.

Denver native Ty Blach was the first reliever manager Bud Black summoned from the bullpen when staff ace Germán Márquez found himself in a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth. Blach yielded a Jonathan Villar sacrifice fly that cut Colorado’s lead to one, at 5-4, but nothing further. The left-hander then turned in a 1-2-3 sixth before Alex Colomé pitched a scoreless seventh.

Then came Estévez’s ordeal with a 6-4 lead, Kinley’s big out and Daniel Bard closing out the game despite surrendering a run in the ninth.

“Bend but don’t break.”

“When guys bend but don’t break, you usually get wins,” Black said. “We were a couple at-bats from that game going in the other direction. … The consistency of performance is what we need for six months. And today, a couple guys picked each other up and we got the victory.”

At the end of the night, all was well for the Rockies, despite a harrowing journey to get there.

Well, all except maybe one thing.

“It was pretty bad,” Estévez said about the beer itself. “It wasn’t even a Coors.”

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