On Memorial Day, traditionally the first good tracking point of the baseball season, we really need to talk about the team with the second-best record in the sport behind the Astros. A team that can mash like crazy, up and down its batting order. A team whose starting pitching has been a surprise, and one whose relief pitching is absolutely stacked in the late innings.
Of course it sounds as if we're talking about the Yankees. We're not. The team, even more of a surprise than the Yankees, is the Colorado Rockies. You can only imagine the things people would be saying about them if they were doing this in New York, and what kind of expectations people would have for them after a start like they've had.
"The expectations that matter here, and where we can go, are the ones inside the walls of our clubhouse," the Rockies' manager, Bud Black, says. "Coming out of Spring Training, I knew we could hit with anybody. The question was if we could pitch. And so far we've really pitched."
There is a brief pause, and then Black says, "You need players to believe. And that is happening with our baseball team."
There is plenty to be excited about with Black's baseball team, starting with young starting pitching that has been the biggest surprise of all. Then there is the fact that the Rockies, who have so often faded in the past when they have gotten away from Coors Field, came into Monday's games with an 18-8 record on the road (best in the National League), against a 15-11 record at home. Finally, there are the fireworks that Charlie Blackmon has provided at the top of Black's lineup, with the most hits in Major League Baseball (70), the most RBIs (45) and seven triples already to go with all that.
You have to talk about all that when talking to the manager of the team about why his team is where it is, playing the way it has been playing. That's before you discuss the best player Black has, his third baseman, Nolan Arenado, the best player in baseball about whom people don't discuss nearly enough outside Denver.
When I mention Arenado's name to Black, this is his initial response:
"Oh my gosh."
And keeps going from there:
"Listen, I played with George Brett. I saw (Mike) Schmidt. Remember watching Brooks Robinson on television. I'm aware that in the present day guys like (Manny) Machado and (Kris) Bryant are great players at third. But defensively, I've never seen anything like this kid. I mean, we're talking about an unbelievable defensive player. He makes plays almost every night that make you shake your head. To the point where you start to take them for granted, which really isn't fair to the kid. Doesn't matter what kind of ball is hit at him. Hard shots. Reaction plays. Slow rollers. Then you factor in that he's got a cannon for an arm, and truly great instincts, and has an amazing passion for the game. He is working on his hitting all the time. Hitting better on the road this season than at home. As an all-around player, you can put him in with any of the big boys right now, any name you care to mention."
Going into Memorial Day, Arenado is hitting .288, with 12 home runs, 17 doubles, 34 RBIs and a .914 OPS. And he is probably just getting started. Last season, he hit 41 homers with 133 RBIs. The year before he hit 42 homers and had 130 RBIs. You want to know how good the Rockies are going right now? Not only is Arenado not the second-best hitter they've got, he's only third, behind Blackmon and Mark Reynolds. Reynolds, now playing for his seventh big-league team, came into Monday's game with 13 homers, 43 RBIs and a .320 batting average.
Black talks about the "resurgence" of Reynolds, his first baseman, and says, "It really is a good lineup."
But Black knows the Rockies wouldn't be leading the NL West, which looks like the most interesting division in baseball right now, without so many things breaking right with his pitchers that you feel as if you need a platoon of analytics guys to keep track of them all. The Rockies start rookie pitchers all over the place. Here are the three best: Antonio Senzatela, 7-1, 3.19 ERA; Kyle Freeland, 5-3, 3.43 ERA; German Marquez, 4-2, 3.76 ERA.
"Obviously we didn't know how well the young starting pitching was going to do," Black says. "In our bullpen, Greg Holland was coming back from a full year off. Jake McGee was coming back from pitching on a bad knee last season. You see the way the two of them have bounced back. And, let's face it, the young starters have been a bonanza."
Holland, once a bullpen star, hadn't pitched in the big leagues since September of 2015. Had Tommy John surgery in October of that year. Didn't pitch at all in '16. Signed a one-year deal for $7 million with an option for '18. Is currently 19-for-19 in save opportunities, three earned runs in 19 2/3 innings, 1.37 ERA. McGee? He's also pitched 19 innings. Struck out 27 batters. With a 1.89 ERA. Yeah. You could say McGee has bounced back, too.
So far this season, Black's staff is ranked fourth in the NL with a 4.04 earned run average. Last year they finished 13th in the league. The four years before that, they finished last in ERA in the NL every single time. Now they pitch the way they do for Black, an old pitcher himself, one who coached for Mike Scioscia in Anaheim once, alongside another coach named Joe Maddon.
After that, Black managed eight-plus seasons with the Padres, was always better than his circumstances there. He won 89 games his first year in San Diego, and later won 90 there. Send up a flare the next time anybody else does as well with the Padres. He was in play to get the Nationals job after that. Says he has no complaints about a process that saw him finish as first runner-up to Dusty Baker, an old teammate.
"Not exactly sure how it played out in the end," he says, "how it all shook out. Just know that I'm happy where I am."
He has been at this a long time. He pitched his first full season in 1982 and was still around, with the Indians, in 1995. Ten years before that, he was with the Royals when the Royals twice came back from three games to one down, first in the American League Championship Series and then in the World Series against the Cardinals, to win it all. There would be a lot of pitching stops for Black after that. But once in his life, he got to pitch in a World Series.
"If there's one thing I've learned," he says, "you can't always pick where you want to go. Some guys write their own ticket. I was never one of those guys. You just stay at it, and hope that one day things will click. And that you'll end up somewhere that gets you as excited, not just about what's happening right now, but about the future, as I am."
Very good guy. Very good team. Some story, and not because the Rockies happen to have a Story -- Trevor -- at shortstop. They are pitching. They are winning on the road. They could always hit. A long way from Broadway, you use a famous old theater line with Bud Black's team. Attention must be paid.