Bullpen has been key to Colorado's recent surge
Posted: Friday October 5, 2007 12:38PM; Updated: Friday October 5, 2007 12:47PM
PHILADELPHIA -- The Colorado Rockies would surely not have won 16 of 17 games and have arrived Friday morning in Denver with a 2-0 NLDS lead over the Phillies without an explosive offense (which scored an NL-best 172 runs in September) led by outfielder Matt Holliday and a surprisingly effective, bend-but-don't-break rotation headed by lefty Jeff Francis. But equally key to the Rockies' late-season surge, if far less heralded, has been the performance of the bullpen, which on Thursday turned in the latest in a growing string of fine performances, holding the mighty Phillies to one earned run and five hits in six innings.
Colorado's relievers ranked sixth in the National League in ERA for the season (3.85), and threw more innings (528.2) than those of any other NL playoff team. Instead of wearing down, though, the Rockies 'pen has actually improved down the stretch: In 68 innings over those 17 magical games the group has allowed 49 hits and 18 earned runs for a 2.38 ERA.
"They've been on a very impressive run," manager Clint Hurdle said on Wednesday. "They all want the ball... They want to back up the starter, they want to protect the lead, they want to keep us close if we're behind and they have just found a way to complement each other out there very, very well."
Much of the bullpen's improved performance -- and not a small part of the Rockies' historic climb -- can be attributed to the rejuvenation of Brian Fuentes. Fuentes saved 81 games for Colorado in two and a half seasons and was selected for his third consecutive All-Star Game just before blowing four straight saves at the end of June. In short order he was usurped as closer by rookie Manny Corpas and then placed on the DL with a strained back. Any late-season contribution from Fuentes seemed unlikely.
Fuentes, though, returned on Aug. 14 and has been so Lights Out ever since that he may want to get in touch with Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman for a tattooist referral. He has allowed only 14 hits with a 1.44 ERA and struck out more than a batter a frame while serving as a standout setup man for Corpas -- who, despite appearing to have more trouble drinking out of a cup than a Novocained pre-schooler, has converted 21 of 24 saves, including the first two games of the NLDS. "Basically we have two closers," says third baseman Garrett Atkins. "If we can get it to the eighth inning we feel like we have a pretty good chance to win."
In Game 1 the Rockies got to the eighth nursing a 4-2 lead -- and Hurdle didn't think twice about putting the left-handed Fuentes in the game to face righty pinch-hitter Tad Iguchi, switchhitter Jimmy Rollins and righty Shane Victorino, even though many managers might have saved their top southpaw to face lefties Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. (Fuentes' tricky sidearm delivery challenges righties, who are hitting .207 against him, nearly as much as it does lefties, who are hitting .204). Fuentes walked Iguchi, induced a pop fly from Rollins and a fielder's choice groundout from Victorino and struck out Utley.
Hurdle again went to Fuentes with one out in the eighth in Game 2. While Fuentes turned in one of his shakier recent outings -- he struck out Aaron Rowand but allowed a hit and two walks -- Corpas picked him up by getting the last four outs of the game and keeping the Phillies off the scoreboard.
After the game, in a notably sedate visitors' clubhouse (another day, another win for these Rockies, it seems), Fuentes, his left arm wrapped in ice, discussed his new role -- one with which he admits he's not entirely happy. "It sounds like a cliché, but complaining's not going to help anything," he said. "Don't get bitter, get better, is my motto. Manny's been doing a great job for us. But I know I can close, if not here then somewhere else. I'm going to help the team win right now, in the eighth inning, and we'll see what happens after that."
For now, Fuentes and bullpen mates Corpas, Jeremy Affeldt, LaTroy Hawkins, Matt Herges and Ryan Speier, to name a few, constitute as significant a reason as any why the Rockies' improbable late-season run appears all but certain to continue into the NLCS.