It was the top of the ninth inning and the Colorado Rockies clung to a 6-5 lead against the Chicago Cubs. All 44,859 fans at Coors field were on their feet as closer Wade Davis stared down Kyle Schwarber with a full count and two outs. The savvy veteran recognized that Schwarber had fouled on two four-seam fastballs, and on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Davis mixed it up with a deadly 83.8 MPH knuckle curveball that caught Schwarber looking. Dejected, Schwarber immediately turned towards the Cubs dugout before the umpire could even call it a strike.
“Once he pulled the fastball foul, throwing another heater there and you’re kind of flirting with some damage,” Davis said. “I’d already thrown two curveballs for a ball, so if I could just get one in there, I figured I had a good chance of getting it done.”
The game was over, and the Rockies had won. Half of the fans at Coors Field cheered emphatically, while the undeniably large contingent of Cubs fans bowed their heads.
The last pitch by Davis was the culmination of a fantastic performance from a Rockies bullpen that was firing on all cylinders. Throughout the season, the unit has at times been called upon too early in games, but for the most part, been a strong point of the Rockies pitching.
On Monday, it was a textbook performance. Three relief pitchers used in three innings and a Rockies victory. Jairo Diaz, Scott Oberg and Davis made up the trifecta of Rockies relief pitchers used.
Rockies manager Bud Black was quick to point out the continuity that comes from consistent performances from the bullpen night in and night out, even in losses. He credited this as a major factor in Monday’s victory.
“Collectively all eight guys have to do their thing, and it starts even in losses. Yesterday Chad (Bettis) came in and gave us 2 and 1/3 innings. (Carlos) Estevez pitched a clean inning and we didn't have to use anybody else. We kept guys fresh. It all works game to game to game,” Black said.
A major factor in the continuity that the Rockies bullpen has found recently, comes from the return of Davis from injury. He was sidelined for three weeks with an oblique injury, forcing other bullpen players into less comfortable positions. With Davis back, and in the closing spot, the Bullpen has fallen into a more natural rotation.
On Monday, it started with Diaz. The 28-year-old right-handed reliever came into the game with the score knotted at the top of the seventh inning. He needed just nine pitches to retire 3 batters, two of whom he struck out. The two batters he struck out, David Bote and Schwarber, had hit home runs on back-to-back pitches in the third inning.
Diaz utilized a deadly slider and fastball combination that had the Cubs hitting nothing but air. The inning marked the 7th straight scoreless appearance for Diaz. He has carved out a role for himself in the Rockies bullpen after getting called up in late May.
It has been a great few weeks for the player dubbed “El Panda” by some of his teammates. It is especially impressive considering all that he has been through over the last two years. “Difficult” would be an understatement for someone who underwent Tommy John surgery, and lost his wife to stomach cancer in such a short span.
“I feel blessed that they (the Rockies) have given me the opportunity and the trust,” Diaz said. “I feel really good.”
Next up was Oberg. He had filled the role of closer during Davis’s injury, and done an admirable job. However, that isn’t where he is best. Oberg started off shaky walking Kris Bryant and surrendering a single to Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs scored during the next at-bat, after a Javier Baez grounder into a force out allowed Bryant to score. This tied the game at five. Oberg wasn’t shaken and found his rhythm. He proceeded to strike out the next two Cubs batters to close out the inning.
The Rockies regained the lead during the bottom of the eighth inning, and Wade Davis did the rest as he stepped in to record his first save since coming back from injury against his former ball club no less.
Each relief pitcher did their job, and the Rockies kicked off the seven-game home stand with a victory.
There were many prevailing storylines in the back and forth game; Ian Desmond hit the longest home run in the majors this season and Rockies legend Carlos Gonzalez returned to Coors Field for the first time in a foreign uniform.
Those were big moments within the game, but in terms of the scope of the season it will be the Rockies bullpen that plays a large role in their postseason aspirations. Through 65 games they have been up to the challenge.
“We've been phenomenal this year as a group and especially compared to this point last year,” Davis said. “I think our communication is a lot better, our confidence is a lot better, and overall, (we’re) just executing pitches and staying in the strike zone a lot more consistently.”