Rookie Pitchers Push Rockies To New Heights

Antonio-Senzatela (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA—Bud Black knows firsthand what a promising young pitching staff looks like.

The Rockies manager was a 28-year-old lefthander on the 1985 World Series champion Royals, joined in the rotation by 21-year-old righthander Bret Saberhagen, 22-year-old righty Mark Gubicza, 23-year-old lefty Danny Jackson and 28-year-old lefty Charlie Leibrandt. All pitched beyond their years to carry their team to a World Series, and all would pitch at least 14 years in the major leagues.

Now, 32 years later, Black looks out on his Rockies rotation getting significant contributions from rookies Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman, and can't help but see similarities.

"They're comparable in a lot of ways," Black said. "You look at Gubicza, hard thrower. Saberhagen, hard thrower. Danny Jackson was similar to Freeland (with a) big sinker and hard slider. You can draw some comparisons along the way . . . but this group is extremely focused and competitive, just like our I think our group was."

The Rockies entered Wednesday with the best record in the National League at 30-17. The franchise has never won more than 92 games in a season. This year the Rockies are on pace for 103 wins.

Their precocious group of young starters is one of the main reasons why. Freeland (5-2, 3.31) and Senzatela (6-1, 3.67), the Rockies Nos. 8 and 10 prospects entering the year, won rotation spots in camp and have emerged as arguably the top two contenders in the NL Rookie of the Year race.

Marquez (3-2, 3.86), their No. 5 prospect, has excelled since coming up from Triple-A at the end of April. Hoffman (2-0, 3.29), the No. 3 prospect, has won both of his big league starts this year, with 17 strikeouts and two walks in 13.2 innings.

The four rookies have been so good that even with an injury to expected top starter Jon Gray and inconsistent performances from Tyler Chatwood and Tyler Anderson, the Rockies are in contention to allow the fewest runs in a season in franchise history.

"I think for us as rookies we're just attacking and we're hungry," Freeland said. "In spring training with the competition for the last spots, it was a great push for all of us. We learned a lot about each other and how competition can help chemistry."

That chemistry includes the rookies feeding off each other for years. Freeland and Senzatela are homegrown and pitched together at every level from low Class A to Double-A. Marquez and Hoffman were acquired in trades and pitched with Freeland at Triple-A Albuquerque.

"I feel like we're pushing together," Senzatela said. "We work hard and most importantly we win. It was really fun because we played in the minor leagues together, and now we're playing in the big leagues and we're doing good."

More than once the rookies have staged a series of one-upping each other in consecutive starts. Just this week Freeland pitched 5.2 quality innings to beat the Reds to start the week; Hoffman followed the next day with seven innings, three hits and one run allowed and seven strikeouts for a win; and Marquez made it three wins in a row when he allowed one run in six innings the following day.

"They're really competitive amongst each other in a lot of ways," Black said. "Not only in the baseball sense but off the field, whether it's golf, cards, or something. It's cool to see a young group of pitchers do what they're doing. There is a camaraderie amongst them that I think is a real positive."

That positive camaraderie is producing results, and the results have the Rockies on track for the best season in franchise history.

If they can keep it up, they may just be able to replicate the magic of their manager's former staff.

"We want to get out there and help our team win," Freeland said. "Coming up through the system that's what we were taught. We're just going off of everything that we learned so far."