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DENVER – They say that baseball is an individual sport: a game made up of a series of one-on-one matchups where the only thing that matters is the pitcher versus the hitter.
And while that is largely true, it is in the spaces between where the willingness and ability to play like a team can make all the difference in the world.
In other sports, when an offensive player relinquishes their own chance to score in order to give a teammate a better opportunity, they can be awarded an assist. In baseball, you make a sacrifice.
Because when it comes to being noticed for All-Star games, end-of-season awards, or shiny new offseason contracts, recognition of when to “pass the torch,” as ballplayers often call it, doesn’t exactly get top billing.
In a game that is increasingly all about the three true outcomes – walks, home runs, and strikeouts – a well-placed sac bunt, grounder to the right side, or fly ball just deep enough can be easy to overlook.
But these kinds of plays are nonetheless vital to winning ballgames at the most elite level.
And while the baseline stats show an obvious and marked improvement for the Colorado Rockies since their 3-12 start, it is this “team offense” concept that has put them in the thick of the postseason hunt despite the unexpected struggles of the starting pitching rotation.
“I think what that does is put sustained pressure on the pitcher and defense,” says Daniel Murphy, “It can also put them out of position, having to hold the runner or play double play depth, so hopefully we can keep doing that.”
The odds are against even the best hitters in the game to make their way on base in any individual at-bat. But you can sustain pressure and do the little things to help create opportunities.
“I think the team approach is to never give away a pitch,” says Murphy.
Ian Desmond agrees. “Just don’t give at-bats away. Don’t fold. Keep on moving forward and try to get the next guy to the plate.”
Following this mantra, the Rockies offense has found a rhythm that still has MVP candidates Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story at the helm, but has featured standout and clutch performances from everyone else in the lineup.
One of the most surprising contributors to that has been catcher Tony Wolters who has implemented adjustments at the plate that saw him go from a sub .200 hitter for much of 2018 to a guy flirting with .300 throughout all of 2019.
“When you put together good at-bats, get guys on, get them over, it becomes contagious,” he says.
Someone absolutely nobody is surprised to see rake is perennial All-Star Nolan Arenado who attributes some of his massive May to the work being done around him in the lineup.
“It’s really important we don’t strike out with runners in scoring position,” he says, “We get into trouble when our swings get too big and we miss or pop up.”
And the fact that Murphy has picked it up for added lineup protection “has really helped” Arenado to stay patient and find his own best pitches to offer at.
Where players like Desmond, Wolters, and the still-emerging Raimel Tapia have created length in the lineup – and Arenado and Story keep making history – David Dahl has arguably been the most consistent Colorado clubber.
He doesn’t yet have the signature moment that many of his teammates do, though a deep drive to the second deck on a recent swing through New York was extremely impressive. Still, his .330 batting average is good for fifth best in the National League and second-best on the Rockies just behind Arenado.
“Put the ball in play,” says Dahl of his approach. He spoke to us earlier this season of his disdain for strikeouts and the implementation of a choking-up mechanic to address it.
“You have to fight pitches off with two strikes and spoil them,” he says.
You may not come through in the end, but you keep that pressure on the opposing pitchers, as Murphy was talking about.
“I feel like we’ve been doing a great job with a team approach,” Dahl says, “The trick is to enjoy it and keep it going.”
So, is baseball really a team sport made up of one-on-one matchups?
Yes and no, says Story.
“Every at-bat is connected,” he says. “The guy in front of you, the guy behind you, what you’re doing out there effects those guys.”
Whether it’s driving up a pitch count, revealing tendencies or weaknesses, moving the defense around or simply increasing the chances for a mistake, “we have to stick with that approach because when we do we’re really tough to face as a team,” Story says.
“I think it’s a sign of a good team and a good offense that you find different ways to win. It’s not always going to be the big homer so just trust the guy behind you.”
In 2018, the Rockies offense often found itself in feast-or-famine slumps. They’ve avoided that trap in 2019 thanks to the advancement of some young players, but also in large part because they’ve figured out how to take one of the most individual things in pro sports and approach it as a team.