By Pat Graham, AP sports writer
There’s nothing like a near no-hitter to lift the spirits of a slumping team heading into the All-Star break.
Denver native and rookie Kyle Freeland came within two outs Sunday of becoming the first Colorado Rockies pitcher to throw a no-hitter at Coors Field. His gem before the four-day break certainly made that scheduled Wyoming fly fishing trip all the more enjoyable for manager Bud Black.
Now, Black and the Rockies are setting their sights on reeling in an even bigger prized catch: the team’s first playoff spot since 2009. Despite a recent 5-13 plunge, the Rockies are in prime position, with their best-ever record (52-39) at this point in the season.
They have some work to do to capture their first NL West title as they trail the Los Angeles Dodgers by 9 1/2 games. But the Rockies have a 7 1/2-game advantage for the last wild-card spot. Colorado has anywhere between a 62 percent and 83 percent probability of making the postseason, according to some prediction sites.
“I wish I had a crystal ball. But that would be no fun, though, right?” said Black, who took over for Walt Weiss this season. “We all come today to see what’s going to happen. That’s the beauty of it.”
A few highlights from a memorable first half:
- Freeland’s masterpiece Sunday in which he allowed only a single to Melky Cabrera with one out in the ninth.
- Nolan Arenado completing his cycle on June 18 with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.
- Closer Greg Holland saving a major league-leading 28 games in his return from Tommy John surgery.
- Arenado, Holland, second baseman DJ LeMahieu and outfielder Charlie Blackmon making the All-Star team.
- Pitcher Jon Gray hitting one of the longest homers in the majors this season, according to MLB’s Statcast, with his 467-foot blast on July 5.
“To be where we’re at going into the second half, it’s a good feeling,” Arenado said. “We’re where we want to be.”
That’s even with a prolonged slump. The Rockies were 21 games above .500 and in first place until hitting a skid that saw them drop eight straight in late June. At least Freeland’s performance sent them into the break on a high note.
“We needed a game like that,” Arenado said.
A snapshot of the Rockies heading into the second half:
Slumping Cargo: Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez just can’t seem to get his bat to heat up. He’s hitting .221 with six homers.
His teammates aren’t worried about the lifetime .291 hitter.
“He can be the best player on the planet when he gets hot,” said Blackmon, who leads the majors in hits (117) and triples (10). “He usually gets hot at some point. We haven’t seen it yet. If he gets hot, he can really carry a team.”
Shortstop Trevor Story also has yet to find his offensive rhythm. He’s batting .224 with 100 strikeouts and 11 homers.
Young arms: Colorado is the first team to have four rookies — Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela — all win at least five games before the All-Star break, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The quartet has started 56 of 91 games, going 29-15 with a 4.21 ERA.
The recent return of Gray relieves some of the pressure. The ace of the staff, Gray missed two months with a stress fracture in his left foot. He’s 2-0 since coming off the DL on June 30.
Defense wins: The Rockies boast one of the top-fielding teams in baseball. They’re 41-20 when they don’t commit an error and 11-19 when they have at least one.
Desmond’s struggles: Sidelined by a strained right calf, infielder/outfielder Ian Desmond should return soon after the break. It’s been a trying season for Desmond, who began the year on the DL with a broken left hand. Desmond signed a five-year, $70 million deal in the offseason. He’s hitting .283 with five homers — just one at Coors Field.
Favorable schedule: Of their 71 remaining games, 37 are at Coors Field, where they’re 26-18 this season. They don’t face Arizona — second place in the NL West — or the Dodgers again until September.
“Our sights, I don’t think it’s just on the wild card. It’s still the division,” LeMahieu said. “I think we have a good chance of making things interesting — a very good chance of making things interesting late into the second half.”