Kiszla: Inside Rockies rookie pitcher Antonio Senzatela, there’s a little bit of Michael Jordan

You want to know why the Rockies are in first place and the Los Angeles Dodgers are not? Well, let’s start by doing the math. The Dodgers pay ace Clayton Kershaw a base salary of $33 million. As a rookie, Antonio Senzatela’s annual paycheck from the Rockies is $535,000. And, right now, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two pitchers.

I want to know: How Senzatela does it? Unlike Kershaw, who makes hitters mumble with self-loathing on the way back to the dugout after striking out, Senzatela pitches to contact, which seems like a good way for a pitcher to get hurt at Coors Field. Yet here are Kershaw and Senzatela, the greatest pitcher of our generation and the most unlikely hero on baseball’s most surprising team, tied for the National League lead with seven victories apiece.

So I need to know: What’s the secret to Senzatela’s success?

“Breathing,” he tells me.

Breathing? If inhaling and exhaling were the lone requirements, I could be Clayton Kershaw. And if I were Kershaw, the first thing I’d do with that $33 million salary is upgrade my garage by installing an In-N-Out Burger franchise with my own private drive-through window.

The real secret to being Senzatela is how he loves trouble. The bigger the jam, the taller Senzatela stands. He doesn’t wilt under pressure. He thrives under pressure.

“There are certain quarterbacks, when it’s third-and-12 in the fourth quarter with four minutes left, they complete the pass. … ” Rockies manager Bud Black says. “Or with two minutes to go, and a guy pulls up for a 20-footer, he makes it. Or Derek Jeter gets a base hit in October. It happens. And when it happens more often than not, then there’s something to that.”

This is not to suggest Senzatela is Kershaw or Michael Jordan or Jeter. It’s way too early to go there. But like all bona fide stars in the clutch, Senzatela embraces the chaos.

“I do get nervous with runners on base,” Senzatela says. “But I have learned, if you want to be a good pitcher, when you are in trouble, you have got to stay focused. You have got to keep it simple. You cannot worry about that man on second base or that man on third base. You have to breathe and throw the baseball in the spot you want it. So on the mound, the first thing I do when I have people on base is remember to breathe. Breathe, and then throw a strike.”

With nobody on base, Senzatela is a solid pitcher, but definitely not spectacular. When the bases are empty, foes are batting .254 against him. And hitters tend to punish his mistakes, smacking seven doubles, a triple and six home runs in 130 at-bats.

But when there’s traffic, Senzatela morphs into one tough cop, and lays down the law. With runners on base, the batting average of his opponents drops to .215. When in a jam, Senzatela pitches his best. With runners in scoring position, he has allowed only eight hits in 51 at-bats, with no home runs and only two doubles.

Maybe the truest definition of a stopper is a pitcher that laughs at trouble. With two outs and runners in scoring position, hitters are batting an anemic .143 against Senzatela.

Notice the trend? A pitcher that can’t deal with the chaos will get eaten alive by Coors Field. But the tougher the situation, the better Senzatela pitches. It’s a statistical trait he shares with Kershaw, who is limiting hitters to a .205 batting average with runners on base. Senzatela strands runners at a 79.8 percent clip, which ranks him ninth among NL hurlers, not far behind Kershaw (83.3).