The Colorado Rockies saved their season in early September at Dodger Stadium. The team had been in a possession of a playoff spot since mid-April, but a few days before the Dodgers series, its lead in the National League wild-card race had shrunk to a half-game over the Brewers. The week before, the Rockies had lost two of three to the hapless Tigers at home and then been swept by Arizona.
In other words, they were reeling, a surprising season about to flip on its axis. The Dodgers were also reeling, entering the series with a six-game losing streak, although they still had the best record in baseball. Maybe the Rockies caught L.A. at the right time. Or maybe they just played four great games right when they needed to.
Not surprisingly, it was Nolan Arenado who got things going with a three-run homer off Clayton Kershaw in the first inning of the first game. Jon Gray gave up one run in six innings in a 9-1 victory. The next night, the Dodgers led 4-1 after one inning, but the Rockies scored four runs in the fifth off Yu Darvish — they hit four doubles in the inning — and won 5-4 after the bullpen threw five scoreless innings. The Rockies won the third game 6-5 after Trevor Story homered, Arenado had three hits and they scored a crucial insurance run off Kenley Jansen in the ninth. On Sunday, Sept. 10, Tyler Chatwood tossed five scoreless innings and the Rockies broke open a 2-0 game with five runs in the eighth.
That unlikely series sweep helped propel the Rockies to their first playoff berth since 2009, which they clinched Saturday when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, 7-6. Because the Rockies have held a playoff position almost all season, it might not feel like a surprise that they’re heading to the postseason, but it’s not as though they were heavy favorites to make it before the season. Only five of ESPN’s 35 voters predicted they would make the playoffs, and over at FanGraphs, it was 12 out of 53.
What is more of a surprise is how they got here. Colorado was 75-87 last season, which was actually its best record since 2010. Its big moves in the offseason were spending $70 million on Ian Desmond — which turned out to be a disaster — and taking a chance on a Greg Holland coming off Tommy John surgery. While there was concern about how those moves would work out, those who liked the Rockies figured they’d bludgeon their way to the postseason.
That’s not what happened, although the misguided narrative that this is an offensive powerhouse remains intact. Arenado and Charlie Blackmon both will probably finish in the top five of the MVP voting, but the rest of the offense isn’t anything special, particularly with Carlos Gonzalez being one of the worst hitters in the league until he finally heated up in September. In fact, despite a league-wide increase in scoring, the Rockies are averaging fewer runs per game than 2016. In the park-adjusted wRC+ statistic, the Rockies rank 27th in the majors.
So it has been the pitching. This is where the surprise kicks in. Heading into spring training, the top three projected starters were Gray, Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis. Those three, however, have combined for only 44 starts. Bettis was diagnosed with testicular cancer and didn’t make it back until August. Gray suffered a stress fracture in his foot in his third start and missed more than two months. Anderson battled a knee injury and pitched poorly with a 6.11 ERA through late June before finally undergoing arthroscopic surgery, missing July and August.
Remarkably, it was an unheralded group of young starters who helped the Rockies to a fast start. They were 41-23 through June 10 and leading the NL West. Rookies Antonio Senzatela, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland formed three-fifths of the rotation in the first half. When Jeff Hoffman joined the rotation in late May, Colorado was using four rookie starters. Through that June 10 peak, those four were a combined 23-8 with a 3.53 ERA.
The bullpen was also terrific early on, with a 3.71 ERA through June 10. Holland converted his first 23 save opportunities, not blowing one until June 15. Chris Rusin and Jake McGee had sub-3.00 ERAs in the first half.
The biggest win of the season came on Sunday, June 18, at home versus the Giants, when Arenado hit a walk-off, three-run homer to win the game and complete a cycle:
Proving there’s no such thing as momentum in baseball, the Rockies began an eight-game losing streak three days later to fall out of first place. The pitching struggled for two-plus months. Holland gave up 14 runs in 9⅓ innings in August, although he has been better in September. The only rookie still in the rotation is Marquez.
The Rockies will be underdogs in the playoffs, but don’t underestimate their chances. Gray is pitching like an ace in September, with a 2.57 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 35 innings. Clinching before Sunday means Colorado gets to save Gray for the wild-card game, and he can certainly outduel Zack Greinke. Anderson has given up three runs in 22⅔ innings since returning from the disabled list. Chatwood has a 2.84 ERA in September. That’s right: For seemingly the first time in Rockies history, they have rotation depth. The rookies have been holding the fort, and then the veterans — young veterans in the case of Gray and Anderson — have stepped up at crunch time.
And if they beat the Diamondbacks to play the Dodgers? Well, after Friday’s victory, the Rockies are 10-7 against Los Angeles. Anything can happen.