DENVER -- Pessimism, not purple, colors my view of the Rockies.
I covered the team as a traveling beat writer from 2001-2014 for The Denver Post. The Rockies posted a winning record three times. Rocktober remains melted into my brain and into the pages of a book -- "A Magical Season" -- featuring my articles. But for fans, too many summers ended in disappointment, the team aspiring to mediocrity before the Broncos opened training camp in late July.
This year, as I noted in spring training, feels different. For the first time since 2010, hope was not a four-letter word in Scottsdale. The players viewed the bullpen additions, the signing of first baseman Ian Desmond and the hiring of manager Bud Black as significant moves toward contending. I figured 81 wins were realistic.
At this point, anything short of the playoff strikes as hollow. The Rockies have created a new bar with the best start in franchise history. After splitting Thursday's doubleheader at Minnesota, the Rockies sit 26-16. It marks the first time they've resided in first place in the National League West -- which they've never won -- at this juncture. Quarterpole records provide real impressions. Play even the rest of the season, and the Rockies would be in the position to make the playoffs at 86 wins.
Yes, I realize I said playoffs. Again, 14 seasons on the road and Marriott Platinum Elite status for life have hardened my senses. Fans see a banana and make a smoothie. I see a loose peel capable of throwing out an unsuspecting person's back with a slip.
And yet, this start has roots. The numbers suggest as much. There are warning signs, of course, given the heavy workload of young starting pitchers. But there are reasons this launch should lead to meaningful games in September, if not October.
Let's start with the road record. It's impossible to overstate how bad the Rockies have been away from Denver since 1993. I have covered trips that could not have gone more poorly if Clark Griswold was driving the team in the family Truckster. There were times avoiding a no-hitter in San Francisco or a shutout in Los Angeles was considered an accomplishment. During the leanest years, a pitcher throwing wild to the backstop for a ricochet to the catcher was viewed as a reasonable way to record an out at the plate.
Everything is different in the current snapshot. The Rockies own a 13-6 road record. As recently as 2014, they won 21 road games in a season. They've never had a winning record in visiting parks. Anything close to 40, and the Rockies are staring at a postseason berth.
The starting pitching has exceeded even the most delirious predictions. Rookies Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland and German Marquez, Wednesday's day game winner, are a combined 12-5 with a 3.79 ERA in 114 innings. Senzatela ranks as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate (pitcher Jason Jennings won the award in 2002). Freeland showed resolve, winning his last start without his best stuff, a mark of maturity. Marquez makes me wonder if Tyler Anderson's rotation spot is safe when Jon Gray returns. Marquez has been that good, yielding one run or less in three of his last four outings.
The bullpen, more than any component, gives the Rockies credibility. Closer Greg Holland makes the argument as baseball's best offseason signing on a one-year, $7 million deal with a vesting option for 2018. Holland has converted 18 straight saves, a franchise record to start a season. Not that he's scalding hot or anything, but the right-hander remains on pace for 69 saves. Closers, however, are like kickers. The team has to bring the game to them. They only matter if they have a lead to secure. The Rockies are 22-0 when leading after six innings.
Mike Dunn and Adam Ottavino form a sturdy bridge to Holland. It's hard to articulate how much confidence it instills in a team when it knows a cushion is safe. Get through six innings to win? The Rockies haven't had that feeling since 2009. They are 9-0 in one-run games. The record to start a season is 11-0 by the 1972 Mets. It's more impressive when remembering the Rockies went 12-20 in one-run contests last season.
Again, nothing is like it was.
Of course the Rockies are fighting external doubt. Too many June swoons leave anxiety lurking in the shadows. Is Colorado a mediocre team that got hot? Nope. This team can be trusted. There are too many markers to indicate this is more than a strong seven weeks.
The concern comes with the pitching. The Rockies need ace Jon Gray to return and gulp innings. And Jeff Hoffman will be asked to make a handful of starts. Why? Senzatela, Freeland and Marquez will be on an innings limit whether it's spoken or not. Senzatela threw a career-high 154 innings in Class-A in 2015. Freeland maxed out at 162 last season in two minor league stops last season. Marquez reached a tick above a year ago, coming in at 166 2/3. Science says a 30-inning increase leaves the trio around 190. It will call for creative massaging by Black, especially if all three are needed in the playoffs.
This is a wonderful problem to have for a team that for too long has been the Rocky Horror Pitcher Show.
When a team pitches and plays defense, it allows for a margin for error. It makes the slumps by right fielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Trevor Story more tolerable. CarGo will figure it out. He always does. Story, who begins a rehab assignment this week, deserves to start at shortstop because of his steady defense. However, he must make more contact at the plate to remain an everyday player (48 Ks in 111 at-bats).
With June peeking its head around the corner, the Rockies can and should be taken seriously. They still might break hearts. But they have created realistic playoff expectations with their breathtaking start.