The Colorado Rockies had the chance to accomplish the near-impossible on April 19: Beat Clayton Kershaw on his home turf.
The game was knotted 1-1 headed into the bottom of the third inning of the early-season series between the National West Division opponents. Rockies lefty Tyler Anderson surrendered a lead-off double to Chris Taylor to start it. Next up was Kershaw, who laid down a sacrifice bunt.
Anderson fielded it cleanly. He thought about trying to gun down Taylor at third, but when he realized it was too late, he changed course and rushed a throw to first. Anderson’s throw skipped and got by Colorado first baseman Mark Reynolds. The Dodgers wound up tagging Anderson for three runs in the inning in an eventual 4-2 win over Colorado.
Asked about the sequence afterward, first-year Rockies manager Bud Black would explain it away with one of his go-to phrases.
“If he makes that play, the whole inning changes. They might get one instead of three,” Black said. “But that’s baseball.”
Over the course of his first 91 games as manager of the Colorado Rockies, Black has said those last two words many times.
“That’s baseball” is Black’s way of explaining the breaks of the game. It’s how he puts into perspective the unlikely occurrences in a 162-game season, whether it’s Anderson committing a throwing error to first, or rookie pitcher Antonio Senzatela blasting a three-run double in a beatdown of the reigning American League champs.
The Rockies (52-39) have taken some hits in the last month, but at the All-Star break they still sit 13 games above .500. They are 7 1/2 games up over the next two closest teams in the National League Wild Card race. Black, who was hired in November as Walt Weiss’ successor, is the steady hand who’s helped steer them here.
When the game’s not going, Black’s mood rarely changes. He’s friendly, loose, cracking jokes.
“Do we have any Queen fans here? Who went to Queen last night?” he asked the media before Friday’s game against the White Sox, yukking it up even as his team had lost 12 of its last 15.
When the action starts, Black flips a switch, and the competitor comes out. He doesn’t look uptight from his perch in the dugout, but if the situation calls for it, he doesn’t hide his displeasure. Especially when it comes to pitching.
In May, Black removed Scott Oberg from a game by yanking the ball out of his hand after the righty reliever came in and began issuing Black’s biggest pet peeve: walks.
Rookie Kyle Freeland appeared to be on the receiving end of some heated words from Black during his July 4 start. Black met him on the mound after Freeland threw one too many meatballs to the Reds in a tough third inning. As Black jogged onto the field to talk to Freeland, he waved off the Rockies’ infield from joining the dressing down. Even the home plate umpire, who usually tries to speed up manager-pitcher conversations, gave Black room as he lit into Freeland.
“He demands success out of us,” Freeland said. “That’s what you want out of a manager. But at the same time, he does it where he gives you confidence. He wants you to go out and do well. He wants to give you the keys to success, but he demands you figure things out on your own and you do your work and do it properly.”
Black appears to have navigated the tightrope between instilling confidence and demanding more expertly so far. Colorado’s rotation could have crumbled after losing Chad Bettis during spring training and Jon Gray in his third start of the season. Instead, it’s helped keep the Rockies afloat as the team’s dealt with a laundry list of injuries and the struggles of Carlos Gonzalez and Trevor Story at the plate.
Four rookies — Senzatela, Freeland, Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez — have combined to start 56 games, eat up 334 innings and allow 156 earned runs. They’ve played a big part in a Rockies’ rotation that ranks fourth in FanGraphs’ park-adjusted ERA metric.
“I feel very, very confident with him,” said Marquez, a 22-year-old native of Venezuela, through a translator. “He helps me out a lot. He helps me remain very calm and very comfortable.”
Black’s background makes him uniquely qualified to work with Colorado’s hurlers. Black was a big-league starting pitcher for 15 years. In that time, he posted a 3.84 ERA, won 121 games and was a member of the 1985 Royals’ World Series team.
Black only pitched one game in Colorado’s thin air as a member of the Giants in 1993, but he managed dozens of them in eight-plus seasons as the San Diego Padres skipper from 2007-15.
“He’s right there with you,” Gray said. “He knows. It’s easier to trust that way. Everything you’ll do, he’s done it before.”
When Black was hired as the Rockies’ manager this winter, the questions about pitching at Coors inevitably came.
“You know what works here?” Black asked. “Good pitching and making pitches and getting outs. That’s what we have to do. I don’t think we have to change anybody. We’ve got to make guys better. And these guys are pretty good to start with.”
So far, Black has been right. The Rockies are in an excellent position to make the postseason for the first time in eight years. There will be twists and turns as the second half gets going. As Black likes to say, “that’s baseball.” The key, Black has stressed many times as the Rockies’ manager, is to shrug them off and stay the course.
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