January 30, 2023

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Course correction: Rox look to fix porous defense

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DENVER — Ryan McMahon was one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball last year after becoming the heir to a position that Nolan Arenado held for eight Gold Glove Award-winning seasons. McMahon was a revelation in the field, with 13 defensive runs saved, second among all third basemen.

This year, McMahon has been startlingly shaky at the hot corner — he has eight errors, three more than he had at third all of last season. But in Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Mets at Coors Field, he wasn’t answering for a defensive miscue he committed.

He was asked if poor defense was “contagious,” after a costly error by Randal Grichuk in right field opened the door for New York to capitalize for both of their runs in the sixth inning.

“I don’t think it’s contagious,” McMahon said before adding: “I hope it’s not contagious.”

The fateful play Sunday came with the game scoreless and one out in the sixth. Brandon Nimmo lined a ball into right field for a single. Grichuk misplayed it and the ball went between his legs and rolled toward the warning track. Nimmo, sprinting out of the box, bolted around to third base.

With the infield in, a Francisco Lindor ground ball that otherwise might have been playable for McMahon or José Iglesias at shortstop instead ended up in left field for an RBI single. Jeff McNeil followed with a bloop double to shallow left, and Pete Alonso grounded out to bring in New York’s second and final run.

“It was hit pretty hard (104 mph exit velocity, according to Statcast) and just skipped at me,” said Grichuk of Nimmo’s hit. “You can [kind of] see in the video that I tried to like ‘goalie-block’ it and it just got on me too quick and found a hole.”

Clean defense is something the Rockies have prided themselves on over the years. But whether on the infield or in the spacious Coors outfield, it’s been porous so far in 2022, to the tune of 32 errors, tied for the second-most in MLB.

As frustrating as it may be for the Rockies, and whether it’s somehow “contagious” or not, there is only one remedy for this condition.

“Practice,” manager Bud Black said. “We’ve got to keep working and we’ve got to get better. And you get better through practice.”

Beyond practicing the mechanics of solid defense, there’s practicing the mental aspect of it. When a run scores after a misplay in the field, the camera usually centers on one person: The player who made the error. That’s the critical moment. That’s when the next defensive chance can be won or lost in his head.

“You’ve [got to] put it behind you,” Grichuk said. “Because the second you start doubting yourself defensively, the ball will find you and you have a tendency to not let your natural ability take over.”

An example of Grichuk’s natural ability came early this season when he made one of the catches of the year in baseball, robbing Corey Seager of a home run at Globe Life Field on April 12. To get back into a mindset that enables that kind of sparkling defense, you must learn from the miscues, but then quickly forget them.

It’s the same for McMahon, who made a nice bare-hand pickup and throw to get Tomás Nido on a dribbler in the third inning Sunday. Or Brendan Rodgers, who had a Starling Marte grounder eat him up in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, but then made a full-extension diving grab for the final out of the contest.

And it’ll have to be the same for Grichuk. If there’s one thing he didn’t appear to be after Sunday’s loss, it was fazed.

“It took me years [to be able to wipe the miscue memory],” Grichuk said. “Obviously, it’s not easy with all the eyes on you, with the guy scoring, you letting your team down. Every game matters. As a younger player, I’d beat myself up and kind of not want the next ball hit to me. But I was able to get that confidence back and know that stuff happens and … let’s go.”

Where the Rockies go next is Pittsburgh to begin a seven-game road trip against the Pirates and Nationals. After being shut out on six or fewer hits at Coors Field on Sunday, something that hadn’t happened in more than four years (April 8, 2018, vs. Atlanta), Colorado will need to revive the offense as well.

Still, if the old adage is true, and pitching and defense win games, the Rockies have to get right in the field.

“It’s been sloppy. It’s been hurting us,” McMahon said. “We’ve [got to] clean that up.”

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