By Manny Randhawa
DENVER -- Exactly three weeks after Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado hit the first-ever walk-off home run to complete the cycle while his club was trailing, Sunday afternoon at Coors Field nearly yielded another historic occasion: Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeland came two outs shy of throwing the first Rockies no-hitter in Coors Field history.
Freeland, a Denver native, gave up his first hit -- a soft single to left field by White Sox left fielder Melky Cabrera -- with one out in the ninth inning, ending the longest no-hit bid by any Rockies pitcher at Coors Field since the ballpark opened in 1995.
The Rockies won, 10-0, ending the first half of the season with a record of 52-39, their best ever going into the All-Star break. With a 7 1/2-game lead over the Cubs for the second National League Wild Card spot, the big question for the Rockies is this:
What lies ahead in the second half, particularly with the Dodgers pulling away in the NL West and the D-backs also ahead of them in the standings?
"It looks like the Dodgers are never going to lose again," Arenado said. "They're an incredible team. That's a credit to them. I mean, what are you gonna do? But we know we can do some special things. Home field in the Wild Card Game would be great, but at the same time, there are a lot of games left still. You never know what can happen with the Dodgers, and what can happen with us."
A key element in determining what will happen with the Rockies down the stretch is how the young starting pitchers that have helped put them in this position will fare. Prior to a stretch of 13 losses in 17 games beginning on June 21, Rockies starters were sixth in the Majors in expected weighted on-base average against (.310) per Statcast™, which is based on exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls.
Entering Sunday, when Freeland twirled his gem, Colorado starters had been hit hard since June 21: Their xwOBA against was .350, 28th in the Majors.
As the Rockies' rookie starters, who had pitched so well to open the season, ran into teams the third and fourth times around, hitters have made adjustments. This was particularly evident with the Dodgers, D-backs and Giants, against whom the Rockies have gone 2-10 in their past 12 games, dropping them to third place in the division standings.
Freeland, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Jeff Hoffman and veteran Tyler Chatwood have collectively gotten Colorado through the first half of the season after Chad Bettis was diagnosed with testicular cancer and both Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson sustained injuries that kept them out for a significant period.
But even with Gray back, Anderson on the mend and Bettis gradually nearing a rehab assignment, whether the Rockies' core of young starters will be able to make the necessary counter-adjustments to what opponents have been doing against them will go a long way toward determining the fate of this upstart season in Denver.
"Friday night in New York, Jon Gray has to set the tone," said Rockies manager Bud Black about opening the post-All-Star break portion of the schedule. "Someone's gonna ask me then if this is an important game to start the second half, and you know what I'm gonna say? Yeah."
The good news for the Rockies is that between now and Sept. 1, they'll only see one team -- the Padres -- that has faced their pitching for more than one series in 2017. That would be an ideal period to pick up ground on the D-backs and hold off any potential surges from other clubs in the NL Wild Card chase.
Offensively, things have been looking up for Colorado of late. In winning four of seven in their past two series with the Reds and White Sox, the Rockies have averaged 5.7 runs per game. In losing 10 of 11 prior to that, they averaged 3.1 runs per game.
Despite the recent success, however, Colorado has to be concerned with the continued lack of production from Carlos Gonzalez and Trevor Story. Gonzalez has a .637 OPS so far this season, and Story's is .699 after 17 straight games with a strikeout before an off-day on Sunday.
Barring a huge collapse by the Dodgers, the Rockies will be shooting for that NL Wild Card Game to be played at Coors Field. The last time Colorado played a winner-take-all game to reach the postseason was 10 years ago, when they reeled off wins in 13 of their final 14 games to earn a Wild Card tie-breaker with the Padres. The Rockies won that game in walk-off fashion at Coors Field, and went on to win the NL pennant.
This year's club may need another special run to earn a home Wild Card Game this October, given how well the D-backs have played. But that's still in the future. For the present, Freeland gave the Rockies what they needed on Sunday as they wrapped up the first half of the season:
A rock solid performance.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com and a contributor for Sports on Earth. You can follow him on Twitter @MannyOnMLB.