It was a walk Bud Black had taken hundreds of times as a manager. But as Black strolled to the mound for the second time in the ninth inning for a pitching change during the Rockies’ 15-9 victory against Miami, the idea hit me:
This is why Black is the National League manager of the year.
The Rockies would not be here, on the cusp of their first playoff appearance since 2009, without him.
Yes, there are other great candidates to be celebrated for outstanding managerial work in the NL. Dave Roberts has already won more than 100 games with the Dodgers. In his first year as skipper of the Diamondbacks, Torey Lovullo brought baseball prosperity back to the Arizona desert. Craig Counsell, who gives scrappy a good name, has Milwaukee fighting for the playoffs until the end, and who honestly saw that coming?
But none of those fine gentlemen work in the madhouse that is Coors Field. On a misty Wednesday afternoon, were the Rockies chilling champagne in their humidor? Maybe there wasn’t any room left for the baseballs, which got hit so hard around the yard that Black was forced to make late pitching changes in a game the Rockies led 14-3 after seven innings. It’s enough to make a manager draw another line through his lineup card and order a bourbon on the rocks.
Nothing makes a manager look smarter than six strong innings by his starting pitcher. So let me drop a statistic on you: The top four pitchers of the starting rotations of Los Angeles, Arizona and Milwaukee have combined to throw more than 600 innings. The top four starters the Rockies will take into the playoffs figure to be Jon Gray, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis. They have combined to throw 391 2/3 innings this season. Black has had to do more patchwork with his starting staff than was required of Roberts, Lovullo or Counsell.
Although I will raise a glass to toast the manager, there will be no sonnets written to Black here. To describe almost anything wild or wacky, uplifting or sad during the course of a game, Black is fond of saying, “That’s baseball.” And he’s right. It isn’t rocket science. Decoding the Rosetta Stone is not required to make a double switch.
Players win. The Rockies are on the verge of claiming a wild-card berth, because Charlie Blackmon is sliding into first base to win the batting title, because Gray has matured enough as a staff ace to flush a bad inning down the toilet and because the only entity that covers more of the globe than Nolan Arenado in the name of a strong defense is the United States Navy.
But it’s Black who has held it all together.
He refused to bail on Trevor Story when the shortstop was striking out at an alarming rate, and now Story has found a swing that the Rockies can find useful in the cleanup spot. In the long grind of a 162-game season, the narrative established by a manager matters, and Black is one of the game’s best at talking baseball in a way that keeps players engaged through hot streaks and slumps alike.
But for those of us who were delighted when the team finally decided to put a former pitcher in charge of the Colorado dugout, it has been Black’s handling of the starting rotation — from maximizing the performance of rookies early to patiently awaiting the return of Gray from a foot injury or Bettis from cancer —that has allowed the magic of this season to happen.
“Our starters are doing their job,” Black said.
Truth be told, Black probably won’t be the winner when the NL manager of the year is announced later this year. My guess is it will be Lovullo.
It’s Black, however, who helped the Rockies believe they can be winners. The Broncos own the city’s heart. But baseball is back on Colorado’s radar, and 27,497 bundled up and cheered the home team as it won another series against the Marlins. With mist ushering in the chill that signified autumn is about to get serious, it felt like October at Coors Field.
It felt good. It felt like the weather when baseball matters most.