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Nightengale: Rockies on Track to End Six Years of Futility

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Colorado Rockies leadoff hitter and center fielder Charlie Blackmon. Photo: USA Today Sports Images

You see that long flowing mullet, the thick, wild beard that covers most of his face, and that renaissance personality, and he can pass for the same hipster who just poured your macchiato at a LoDo cafe.

It just so happens to be the epitome of the Colorado Rockies, if anyone is paying attention.

Charlie Blackmon is the best leadoff hitter in the game and the finest center fielder not named Mike Trout. He is hitting .328 with 13 homers, 47 RBI and a major league-leading 79 hits and eight triples.

The man can talk burritos one minute, elk hunting the next, deep-sea fishing, European travel … and he can play a little ball, too.

He has had the anonymity of a Coors Field beer vendor for six years, but finally, folks outside of the 303 area code are starting to take notice that he has emerged as perhaps the best run-producing leadoff hitter since Rickey Henderson.

Oh, and he’s leading a revival for a club oft forgotten in the Mountain time zone.

The Rockies are off to a 36-23 start, best in franchise history, and are a staggering 21-10 away from Coors Field.

They’re threatening to end six years of futility without a winning record, and go where they’ve gone only twice in the last 21 seasons.

Yes, the actual postseason.

“I think I appreciate winning than most around here,’’ Blackmon told USA TODAY Sports, “because I’ve been around here a long time, and it’s been a while since we really won.

“Well, come to think of it, actually never really won.’’

The last time the Rockies even had a winning record was in 2010. Just once have they ever won more than 90 games. And even though they won the National League pennant in 2007, winning 21 of 22 games before getting swept in the World Series, they still have never won a division title.

“Last year, I didn’t really check the scoreboard all year,’’ says Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado. “It didn’t even really cross my mind. It was like, ‘Why bother?’  We’ve always had a losing record as long as I’ve been here. You’re in May, and it’s like, ‘Damn, we’re eight games out already?’

“Now, you come in, having all of this energy, knowing these games are all big. We know it’s early, but still, you can’t help but scoreboard watch.

“These games finally mean something for us.’’

Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado follows through with his swing after connecting for a solo home run off Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in Denver. The Rockies won 8-7. Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

You know life has changed in the National League West when new Rockies manager Bud Black and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who live only two miles apart in San Diego, have barely exchanged text messages this season.

“We used to text back and forth all of the time,’’ Roberts says of his close friend, “but since he became the Rockies manager, and they’re playing so well now, we’re just going to have to catch up in the offseason.’’

These aren’t the Rockies everyone remembers since their inception in 1992, back in the days when they bludgeoned everyone with their offense and used a patchwork pitching staff with veterans past their prime.

“They’re pretty scary, no lie,’’ says Dodgers reliever Sergio Romo.

This is a team that looked finished before opening day. Their 14-game winner, Chad Bettis, underwent surgery for testicular cancer in November, and chemotherapy in March. Their $70 million man, Ian Desmond, was hit by a pitch in spring training and broke his left hand. Starting catcher Tom Murphy suffered a broken forearm. Outfielder David Dahl went down with a bad back. And they lost their ace, Jon Gray, after three starts with a broken foot.

They suddenly were left with two vacancies in the rotation, a void behind the plate, a hole at first base and a thin outfield, but here we are months later, and they’re showcasing one of the deepest teams in baseball.

“I did my homework, and saw the depth they had when I signed here,’’ said Desmond, who was signed for his versatility after the Rockies flirted with slugger Mark Trumbo. “That’s why I knew they could do this. These guys are really special.’’

Catcher Tony Wolters, a converted infielder claimed off waivers last year from the Cleveland Indians, was thrust into a starting catcher’s role, and is now hitting .301. First baseman Mark Reynolds, signed just before spring training simply as insurance, has 14 homers and 46 RBI. Gerardo Parra, who has played every outfield position this year, is hitting .391 since May 16.

It doesn’t matter that Desmond has only three home runs, and none in the state of Colorado. Or that Carlos Gonzalez, who hit 65 homers with 197 RBI the last two years, is batting just .234 with four homers and 17 RBI. Or that shortstop Trevor Story, who had 27 homers in 97 games his rookie season, is hitting just .214 with eight homers and 58 strikeouts in 154 at-bats.

Who in their sane mind could have predicted that the Rockies’ starting rotation, currently composed of four rookies, ages 24, 22, 22 and 21, would be carrying them?

The start-up firm of Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman are 20-8 with a 3.65 ERA. They won 12 games alone in May, equaling the 2006 Miami Marlins with the most victories by rookie pitchers in the last 80 years.

“Hey, we’re surprised as anyone else what they’re doing,’’ Blackmon says. “You saw the talent they had, but they have so little experience. You just never know how young guys will react when they get up to the big leagues. And for them to all come up here, and be successful right away, is rare.

“They’re so mature, it’s almost to a point now where you forget they’re rookies.’’

Then again, there are subtle reminders.

Venezuelans Senzatela and Marquez acted as if it were their first trip to Disneyland last week when they met Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, their childhood hero.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ Senzatela said. “King Felix. That’s who I want to be, too.’’

Freeland, who grew up in Denver, has to remind himself that he’s actually a Rockies pitcher and not a kid who idolized the Blake Street Bombers back in the days they were terrorizing the NL at Coors Field.

And pardon Hoffman, who has been sensational in his last two spot starts (16 strikeouts, no walks) if he gets a little awestruck facing the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in potentially his next start at Wrigley Field.

“What makes this so much fun is that we were all in the minor leagues together,’’ Marquez said. “So besides being teammates, we are friends together.

“Now, hopefully we can be studs together, too.’’

Their kiddie core rotation is yielding a 4.25 ERA, ranked sixth in the NL, bolstered by a veteran bullpen led by closer Greg Holland, who has converted a franchise-record consecutive 21 saves.

It’s heady stuff for a franchise that has a lifetime 5.18 rotation ERA, with no 20-game winners and no All-Star since Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010.

“They all have these dominating personalities so they sure don’t seem like rookies,’’ Wolters says. “They want information, they want to learn, they want to get better. But once they’re on the mound, they’re like, ‘I’m going to beat you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

“They are God’s gifts, so I’m just going to ride them like a bull, and try to stay on as long as possible.’’

The Rockies will closely watch their young pitchers, knowing they pitched stressful innings in spring training just trying to make the team, Black says, but insists there are no innings limits. Each has thrown at least 150 innings in one of the last two seasons in the minors.

They’ll also have reinforcements: Gray could return within two weeks, and Bettis rejoins the Rockies on Tuesday for workouts.

“When we get to the dog days of August, we’ll see whether these guys can hold up, that’s the question,’’ Black said. “But knowing these guys, there’s a toughness to them. And a youthful energy to them.

“There’s a strength in numbers in these guys. They think they can sustain it.’’

The bigger question may be whether Black can sustain it. Black, who turns 60 at the end of the month, finds himself pitching virtually every day. It started in late April when Blackmon asked Black to throw batting practice. Black obliged, Blackmon ended his slump and hasn’t stopped hitting, .387 since May 12, and Black hasn’t stopped pitching.

“Hey, whatever I can do, right?’’ says Black, a 121-game winner over 15 major league seasons. “I’m just part of Charlie’s routine.’’

And as Blackmon goes, the Rockies go. Just don’t call him a leadoff hitter.

“I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a prototypical leadoff hitter,’’ Blackmon says. “The pitching is so good now, it’s hard to go up there and just take pitches. Taking pitches is not a good way to draw walks. It’s a good way to strike out.

“I’m not looking to take pitching, I’m looking to drive in runs. Those are the at-bats that count the most, right? That’s what affects the wins and losses.’’

Blackmon will tell you the Rockies are for real, a sleeping giant that has risen and will be around all summer.

And you’ll find a clubhouse full of believers.

“This means so much to Charlie, and guys who have been here for all of the tough times,’’ Arenado says. “We never wanted to leave. We never wanted to be traded. We wanted to part of a special group that finally brought winning baseball back to Denver.

“We’re here now, and we’re for real.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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