BOSTON – Kids-game analogies, when applied to the bullpens of Colorado Rockies past, describe them with frightening accuracy.
Sorry. (As hell.)
Operation. (Need one. Stat.)
Boggle. (The mind.)
Oh, and there's one more.
"Bullpens are like the Rubik's Cube," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "Sometimes they come together well, and sometimes they take a really long time."
Fifteen years is a long time, one in which the Rockies have endured the likes of Jose Acevedo, Kane Davis, Mike DeJean, Scott Dohmann, Nate Field, Ryan Hawblitzel, Jose Jimenez, Dan Miceli, Mike Muñoz, Shawn Chacon, Allan Simpson and John Wasdin. Clone Pigpen 12 times and the Rockies still own the dirtier dozen.
Which makes the 2007 incarnation of Colorado's relief corps so special. If Coors Field is a wood chipper, the Rockies' bullpen tends to be Steve Buscemi in "Fargo." And yet these Rockies actually have a pitching staff, and particularly a bullpen, worth a shekel.
More than their offense, starting pitching and even all-time-great defense, relief pitching has proven the Rockies' biggest weapon this postseason as they head into Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox. In 28 innings, the Rockies have allowed 23 baserunners and posted an earned-run average of 1.61. And that comes after Brian Fuentes surrendered a three-run home run to Chris Snyder in the eighth inning of the National League championship series' final game. Before that inning, Colorado's bullpen ERA was 1.04.
All of this from a rookie whiz, a deposed closer, a pair of retread right-handers, one who couldn't cut it in Kansas City, and a 27-year-old rookie sidearmer.
How did this happen? How did a Colorado team that had one bullpen in its history with a sub-4.00 ERA – and five above 5.00 – end up with a group of relievers to rival that of the Red Sox, who finished the season second in the major leagues in bullpen ERA?
"We can't be shaken," said Matt Herges, one of the retreads.
During the regular season, Colorado's relievers were perfectly passable, ranking 12th in baseball with a 3.85 ERA. Fuentes, the only reliever with more than two years' experience in Denver, lost his closer's job in June when he became the first pitcher in more than 20 years to blow four consecutive saves. He joins 34-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, the 37-year-old Herges (who spent most of the first half in Triple-A) and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt on the list of deposed closers. Right-hander Ryan Speier has closed most of his career in the minor leagues, giving the Rockies six one-time closers, counting the current ninth-inning don, rookie Manny Corpas.
All of them, as Fuentes said earlier this postseason, have "that slow heartbeat," which is a good thing. They know pressure. At one point, they conquered it.
Of course, were they good enough, they probably wouldn't be former closers. Former is the kind word for failed. And yet the Rockies are ecstatic to fill their bullpen with even failed closers, so long as they pitch like good relievers.
An excellent bullpen "makes a manager's job much easier," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "It provides a comfort zone for the position players and offense that's not always in play. Those guys didn't just want the ball when they felt good. They wanted the ball. They wanted to make the difference, each and every one of them."
When O'Dowd built the Rockies' bullpen, he sought hard throwers who, preferably, didn't walk many. He traded for Affeldt, who throws 97 mph, and plucked Hawkins, who throws 99 mph, off the free-agent pile. Fuentes can hit the mid-90s with his fastball, Herges has found a couple extra mph to get his past 90 and Corpas alternates between a 94-mph fastball and 79-mph slider, one of the best two-pitch combinations in the NL.
"And," O'Dowd said, "we may have one more power arm coming."
If the Rockies activate starter Aaron Cook, out since Aug. 10 with an oblique injury, rookie Franklin Morales could bring his 95-mph fastball to the bullpen and likely supplant Taylor Buchholz, the long reliever. Morales, solid in his NL division series and NLCS starts, went only seven innings total, forcing the Rockies' bullpen to pitch 11 innings. Over their seven games, Colorado's bullpen averaged four innings per game, while Boston relievers threw less than three innings.
"Our starters go six, we seal the deal," said Affeldt, who, along with Hawkins, Herges and Speier, have allowed four hits in 38 postseason at-bats. "Our offense will get us runs. And our defense is so good, we don't worry about it. If we pump strikes, the defense takes care of it. We get ground balls, we have fun and we slam the door."
Sometimes, literally. Relievers spend games in their own special world, which, in the Rockies' case, is so caffeinated that the bullpen door will, on occasion, find itself whirring shut.
It's too big a Risk. (Not worth taking anymore.)