Jeff Francis reminded everyone what they have been missing since he led the team to the World Series in 2007. The lefty, back from injury and pitching in just his second game since an ill-fated attempt at finishing the 2008 season, threw 6-1/3 shutout innings on Saturday. He gave up just five hits, while striking out three and walking two.
Through 13-1/3 innings so far, Francis has given up just one run, and that came in the first inning of his first start, where the butterflies were undoubtedly flapping inside his stomach.
There in no such thing as a must-win game in May, but after dropping Friday's opener and facing reigning American League Cy Young winner Zach Grienke on Sunday, the Rockies and their sputtering offense needed a boost on Saturday.
Francis provided more than a boost.
What was evident as the Canadian sliced and diced his way through the Royals lineup was why Francis is effective. He does not blow anyone away. He hit 91 MPH on the radar gun just once. His changeup and his slider are both good, but there are other lefties who throw better. The reason Francis is successful is because he knows how to get outs-plain and simple.
The tall lefty threw 90 pitches, 58 for strikes. He lived near the bottom of the strike zone, making sure that when the Royals made contact they hit the ball on the ground, or hit weak pop ups. He nibbles on the corners of the plate, but has enough control to be able to throw a strike when he needs to.
On Saturday, Francis only had a three ball count on three occasions. That is a sign of a pitcher knowing where he is throwing the ball and having a plan of attack. He isn't afraid to throw strikes, knowing that he has a pretty good defense behind him.
Twice on Saturday Francis picked off runners at first base. In the fifth inning Francis picked off David DeJesus. DeJesus was running on first movement, but what was important about it was that right before he was picked off, Francis toed the rubber and held the ball until the batter called time out. He knew that DeJesus would assume that was his attempt to keep him off balance, allowing him to go on the next pitch. Francis foiled that plan, however, and picked him off.
Francis' impact on the Rockies could be huge. With the offense in a month long slump, the pitching staff has had to shoulder the weight of the team. They have done as good of job as possible, but Jorge De La Rosa injuring his finger and Jason Hammel struggling with groin issues have made the back end of the rotation look like patchwork.
With Ubaldo Jimenez leading the league in both wins (8) and ERA (0.99), the Rockies have been able to keep their heads above water. However, with Francis returning the club can take a deep breath and be patient with the bats, knowing that eventually a team with as much talent as they possess will eventually turn the corner and start scoring runs.
While Jhoulys Chacin and Esmil Rogers have done decent jobs keeping the club in games, the fact is, they are young and finding their way in the big leagues. They need time to develop what Jeff Francis already has in his arsenal. Those young pitchers have a ton of talent, but they lack the big game experience and the confidence that the Rockies get with Francis.
With Jeff Francis back in the Rockies rotation, this club might just get the confidence boost that it needs to get right in the middle of the race as summer heats up.
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