|Juan Nicasio can't be trusted with any lead.|
The Colorado Rockies saw another large lead evaporate in front of their eyes on Friday night, something that is becoming all-too-common for them in 2013. This time, a 7-2 lead heading into the 5th inning turned into an 8-7 Phillies lead by the time the Rockies came to the plate in the 7th.
Unfortunately, it was all too predictable for the Rockies with starter Juan Nicasio on the mound. Even though he has been better in recent starts, his game starts to unravel after the 80 pitch mark, and particularly, the third time that a lineup see him.
On Friday night, the Dominican right-hander was doing great, giving up just two runs in the 4th inning, then settling down to get through a scoreless 5th. However, much like the last month, the wheels came off for Nicasio as he took the mound again in the 6th inning.
As his pitch count crept closer and closer to 100, the Phillies started to dial in more to what Nicasio was trying to fool them with. Once they had him figured out, the ball started to get hit, and get hit hard. As good teams do, the Phillies didn't wait on the long-ball to do the damage, they simply dropped in extra base hit after extra base hit before Nicasio was pulled for Josh Outman.
Despite the fact that this has been an ongoing problem for the Rockies, they have managed to squeeze their way out of jams, and find ways to win games. The reason for that was primarily because the bullpen was doing an excellent job of picking up a starter who could only go five innings or less.
If the offense had done what it is very well equipped to do, score plenty of runs, the starter could hand the ball to the bullpen and be confident that the relievers could eat an extra inning and get the team a win. It worked for the first two months of the season. It put the Rockies in the position that they are in currently, within striking distance of the National League West race.
Now comes the problem.
If the season was 60 games long, the Rockies methodology might have them be serious contenders. Instead, the season is 162 games long and inevitably, there are going to be injuries and fatigue.
In the beginning of the season, the Rockies were able to rely on a bullpen that was anchored by three guys who are generally lights out in Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle and Rafael Betancourt. Those three guys essentially made a game six innings long. If the starter could get through five, another reliever could work the 6th inning and minimize damage, then the back-end was dependable enough to get the Rockies back in the clubhouse with a win.
Well, the other shoe dropped when Rafael Betancourt went down with a groin injury. The Rockies closer, who had been extremely dependable before the injury, was suddenly unavailable. That meant guys were going to have to shift their responsibilities in order to fill the gap left behind.
Brothers moved to the closer role, but that left a void in the 7th inning. That role had to be pieced together, sometimes going with Adam Ottavino, sometimes going with Josh Outman, and sometimes going to Wilton Lopez.
With all due respect to those three pitchers, none of them have pitched with the command and dominance that was needed to make the transition seamless. Ottavino has been good, but frankly, Outman and Lopez have been terrible, especially of late.
Part of the problem could understandably be fatigue. With the loss of Betancourt and the fact that starters like Nicasio can't get through six innings, the Rockies have been forced to burn their bullpen on both ends all too often. It seems like Outman is asked to pitch every night. He goes out and does what he can do, but he is a fringe big leaguer. He is hardly a guy who would be considered a lefty specialist.
Don't blame the bullpen. They are simply doing their job and taking the ball when asked. Blame the starting pitching. While Jeff Francis had a good outing on Thursday, he has been guilty of taxing the bullpen after terrible outings that have lasted five or less innings.
Jhoulys Chacin has lost focus on enough occasions to also have forced an early call to the pen on several nights.
Couple all of these factors with the Rockies front office mindset of trying to avoid overtaxing a starting pitcher at altitude and the recipe is clear. This is a team that is going to struggle because they simply don't have the talent, nor the stamina to be able to lock down big leads, let alone small ones.
For the Rockies, it was a fun couple of months, but reality is setting in. This is a team that desperately lacks starting pitching and is starting to get exposed. Nicasio has only two pitches and can't last long enough to be dependable. If he was the only problem it would be just fine, but he isn't. He is one of several starters who have blown big leads, lost focus and given away games that should have been signed, sealed and delivered.
If the Rockies don't quickly figure out how to take some of the innings off of their bullpen, things are going to continue to spiral out of control.
The offense simply can't bash their way to 88 wins.
It appears that the mirage of the Rockies going from terrible to the playoffs is starting to disappear and look like the same desert that Colorado was trudging through in 2012.
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