MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

What a relief: Bullpen saving Rockies now

What a relief: Bullpen saving Rockies now

DENVER -- Rockies manager Bud Black knows all about the evolution of a big league pitching staff over the years.

He's lived it.

He flourished in the days when starters were expected to at least come close to finishing what they started, and he welcomes the change to embrace the new-look world where the depth and durability of the bullpen has become as significant as the men in the rotation.

And in the early days of the 2017 season, his first with the Rockies, he should embrace it.

The Rockies reloaded their bullpen in the offseason with the arrival of Carlos Estevez from the Minor Leagues and the signing of free agents Mike Dunn, a left-hander, and Greg Holland, an established closer, to go with revitalized lefty Jake McGee, no longer bothered by a slow recovery from meniscus surgery before last season.

So far, so good.

Now, it's only five games into the season, but the Rockies, with a 2-1 home-opening victory against the Dodgers on Friday at Coors Field, have won four of five games, thanks as much to the bullpen as anything else.

This is a team whose bullpen in the past seven years had the worst ERA (4.47) of any bullpen in baseball. It also had the fewest saves (244) and the worst save conversion percentage (59.2) in baseball.

So allow the Rockies to enjoy the richness of the past five days, where the bullpen has permitted only three earned runs in 17 1/3 innings, has closed out each of the four victories with a save (including back-to-back 2-1 decisions in Milwaukee and at Coors Field) and has made it look fairly simple. The 'pen has allowed only nine hits and eight walks and struck out 24 batters.

Oh, and on Friday, in the hitters' heaven known as Coors Field, without Dunn, Holland and Adam Ottavino available, the threesome of Estevez, Scott Oberg and McGee shut down the Dodgers in the final three innings, including McGee striking out Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager to claim a save.

"I go back a long ways," said Black, whose pitching career began with the Mariners in 1981 and included stops with the Royals, Giants, Indians and Blue Jays before retiring after the 1995 season. "The structure of the bullpen has changed. Teams that are successful have multiple guys they can count on."

Consider the 1985 World Series, when Black was in the rotation of the world champion Royals, and last year's seven-game battle that the Cubs won against the Indians.

In a rally from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to beat the Cardinals in 1985, the Royals rotation combined to work 55 1/3 of a possible 62 innings. Bret Saberhagen pitched two complete games. Charlie Leibrandt worked 16 1/3 innings. Danny Jackson worked 16. Black pitched five innings in his lone start but also came out of the bullpen to get the final out in Game 1.

That was the ninth-heaviest workload of a postseason rotation in World Series history, the most since the 1958 Braves and second most since the 1931 A's.

In last fall's World Series, the Cubs and Indians bullpens combined to work 58 1/3 innings, third most in history behind only the 1947 World Series in which relievers worked 61 1/3 innings, and 2002, when the bullpens were called on for 60 innings. The Indians bullpen worked 32 1/3 innings, second most in World Series history for a team, and the Cubs tied for 12th with 26 innings.

"You adjust to the way the game is played," said Black.

The adjustment, of course, is easier when a team has the parts to handle different roles, depending on the night, which is what the Rockies focused on in signing Dunn and Holland.

The Rockies already were one of the game's best offenses and defenses. They felt very strong about the developing young arms in the rotation.

Now they are feeling good about their bullpen, particularly with the revival of McGee, whose fastball has jumped from 93 miles per hour a year ago to his more normal 97 mph thanks to the regained stability and strength in his legs.

He also has regained his ability to locate pitches and stay on top of the ball because he has a better foundation.

And he is enjoying being a part of a bullpen that has so many interchangeable parts.

"[Friday] we knew it was going to be Estevez, Oberg and myself, but we didn't know who'd pitch the ninth," said McGee. "It depended on when the left-handed bats were coming up."

That, he said, is what makes it so much fun to think of what might be in the next six months.

"[The front office] has put a great bullpen together," McGee said. "We have depth. Think about it. We have no Holland, no Dunn and no Ottavino [on Friday], and we win a 2-1 game with the bullpen working three innings. It's a good feeling."

It is, as Black admitted, a sign of the ever-changing times of the game.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.