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Rockies starting pitching holds key to first-ever back-to-back playoff berths

Posted at 3:34 PM, Feb 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-06 17:47:28-05

DENVER -- As part of their winter caravan, several Rockies players and coaches traveled to Coors Field last month. They greeted each other inside the clubhouse doors with smiles and hugs. The setting flooded them with memories. 

The last time the Rockies were here they wore ski goggles, sprayed champagne and danced in joy. They could live in that snapshot forever. Now comes the hard part. The next season.

Rockies pitchers and catchers report for spring training on Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. with the first full squad workout on Feb. 19.

Gaining credibility starts with a playoff berth, which the Rockies accomplished last season, ending a seven-year drought. Keeping it rests on slipping back under the velvet rope repeatedly. The Rockies believe a rebuilt bullpen and a core of star players can push them into the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history.

Up with Purple?

The Rockies welcome the idea of going from the hunter to the hunted.

“I think it’s something the players should embrace," manager Bud Black said. "I know from a coaching perspective with where we are now and where think we can go is a good thing. I think the players like that too. The players would rather be in those shoes than the other way.”

For much of their existence since 1993, the Rockies have lived in MLB's shadows. They have reached the playoffs four times, including the World Series during the magical 2007 run. However, they remain viewed with a skeptical eye, an afterthought in national highlights, too often lost as the only team that leaves its time zone for every road game.

Repeating last season's performance -- or even better, claiming their first National League West title -- could go a long way in changing the national perspective. 

"The excitement is a little bit different going into the season. I don’t think they just expect a losing season. And that’s a good thing," All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado said. "The fans are going to come out right from the get go. It's only a good sign for things to come."

The confidence comes from All-Stars Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and D.J. LeMahieu, and a fortified bullpen with the signings of closer Wade Davis, setup man Bryan Shaw and the return of Jake McGee. The Rockies ranked 20th in bullpen ERA, running on fumes at the finish line as former closer Greg Holland posted a 6.38 ERA with three blown saves after the All-Star break.

Colorado spent $106 million on contracts for Davis, Shaw and McGee, pairing them with Mike Dunn, Chris Rusin, Carlos Estevez and Adam Ottavino, who is seeking a bounceback.

"Once I heard the news, I wanted to go spring training that day. I want to see us a squad together," said starter Jon Gray, who trained in Denver this offseason, leaning out to 225 pounds. "I think we can be even better. And that's scary."

The NL West remains a cagematch. The Dodgers reached the World Series, the Diamondbacks won 93 games, knocking out the Rockies in the playoffs, and the Giants added third baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder Andrew McCutchen. While the offense needs to improve -- it was top-heavy and requires improvement from Ian Desmond and a healthy David Dahl -- Colorado's ability to contend hinges largely on a youthful rotation.

The Rockies' starters won 63 games last season. Rookies German Marquez (11-7, 4.39), Denver Thomas Jefferson product Kyle Freeland (11-11, 4.10) and Antonio Senzatela (10-5, 4.68) exceeded expectations. Gray won 10 games in 20 starts. He brims with ace potential and Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis provide experience and depth.

The issue with young pitching is volatility. Growth is rarely linear. So how well the kids respond in their second act could go a long way in determining the Rockies' fate. The urgency remains real with Blackmon and LeMahieu free agents at season's end and Arenado scheduled to hit the open market after 2019.

"Like I said, I think our window is right now," Arenado said. "I don’t want to look past that. Knowing the (starters), they are going to be ready to go.”

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