February 3, 2023

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Twin bill reveals just how much Rox's success hinges on pitching

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WASHINGTON — The Rockies entered the season believing their starting pitching would be a strength, with veteran starters lining the rotation, many with experience pitching at altitude. But that hasn’t been the case early on, not in the aggregate. Saturday’s doubleheader split with the Nationals displayed how much their success hinges on what their starters deliver, even away from Coors Field.

The Rockies experienced both ends of that spectrum Saturday, rallying to capture Game 2, 3-2, after dropping Game 1, 13-7, at Nationals Park. The quality start right-hander Chad Kuhl provided in the nightcap was a steadying force in a difficult time for the Rockies rotation, after Austin Gomber was tagged for eight runs in Game 1 and Germán Márquez endured another rough start in Thursday’s opener. Logging 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball, Kuhl became the first Rockies starter to record a victory in two full weeks.

“[Kuhl] was very instrumental in this win,” manager Bud Black said. “There are times when it might be rocky for the team, and it’s that one guy who needs to do very well: that guy on the mound. He did that tonight. He pitched great … He set a very nice tone the whole game.”

Signed to a one-year, $3 million free agent contract during Spring Training, Kuhl has emerged as the Rockies’ most consistent starter in the first half, lowering his ERA to 3.56 through nine starts. That’s best in Colorado’s rotation by nearly a full run. The Rockies are 12-5 when they get a quality start and 9-20 when they don’t, and 5-14 in their last 19 games overall after beginning the year 16-11.

“When I have both breaking balls going, that’s when I’m at my best,” Kuhl said. “I can say I want to go out and give length, but if I don’t give a good performance, it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s about executing pitches and going from there.”

At the onset of the Memorial Day weekend the Rockies would spend in the nation’s capital, Black emphatically rejected the possibility of the struggling Márquez not making his next turn through the rotation, guaranteeing such radical change was not on the horizon for Colorado’s staff. The Rockies simply don’t have the luxury of letting a frontline-type starter figure things out in a lower-pressure environment. Besides Kuhl, few of their other arms are providing it, and depth is at a premium with Antonio Senzatela still on the mend from a back strain.

Senzatela could be back as early as this week. But for the rotation to truly return to full strength, the Rockies need to get Márquez right and better avoid outings like Gomber’s in Game 1. The lefty became the second Rockies starter to allow at least eight earned runs in a start of 1 1/3 innings or fewer in the last two seasons; prior to that, Colorado hadn’t received such a start in nearly 16 years, since Josh Fogg on Aug. 30, 2006.

“We’re frustrated,” Gomber said after Game 1. “We want to win games. We expect to win games. We’re just not playing [consistent] baseball right now. If we pitch, we don’t hit. If we hit, we don’t pitch. Nothing seems to be going our way. It only takes one dominant performance to open things up.”

Saturday spoke to that search for consistency. Perhaps Kuhl’s performance is the antidote, or at least a sign of fortunes reversing.

All told, the Rockies pitching staff ranks second-worst in baseball by ERA a little ways past the season’s quarter pole, last in bullpen ERA and fifth-worst in rotation ERA, their starters pitching nearly a full run better at Coors Field (4.68 ERA) than away from altitude (5.49). The bright spots are Kuhl and set-up man Tyler Kinley, who worked out of a one-out jam in the seventh inning of Game 2 and around a two-base misplay in the eighth before Daniel Bard notched his 11th save. Bard is now 11-for-13 in save chances and the hard-throwing Kinley is enjoying a breakout year at age 31, pitching to a 1.00 ERA and 21 strikeouts over his first 18 innings.

“We saw it in the second half of last year,” Black said, of Kinley’s growth. “It’s a power arm, mid-90s fastball and, for me, one of the best sliders in the game. He’s very capable of doing what he did today, coming in with guys on base, getting a strikeout, getting a fly ball, and coming back out.”

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