The game had already fled his grasp. His standing within the Dodgers starting rotation already looked precarious. All that remained for Hyun-Jin Ryu on this wretched evening, when he weathered a hellacious beating in a 10-7 loss to Colorado, was a final fit of embarrassment.
As Ryu labored in the fourth inning, already down nine runs, a lengthy conversation developed between the pitcher and the umpiring crew. The message did not take. Ryu stepped backward to begin his motion, and then his body went slack. He held up his left hand to signal for more time. Umpire Todd Tichenor saw something different.
“Balk!” Tichenor shout-ed.
Ryu looked flabbergasted. In the dugout, manager Dave Roberts wore an expression of stony annoyance. On the scoreboard, a number “10” appeared. The night-long humiliation was complete. Ryu managed to finish the fourth inning, but his team could not climb out of the double-digit hole he dug, even after bringing the tying run to the plate in the ninth.
“I’m just unhappy that I couldn’t keep our team going,” Ryu said afterward, “because we were on a really hot streak.”
Riding a five-game winning streak into this series, the Dodgers crashed into a Rocky Mountain wall. The Rockies walloped Ryu (1-5, 4.99 earned-run average) and set the tone for this four-game set between the Dodgers (20-15) and the surprising leaders of the division.
Colorado awoke on Thursday ahead in the National League West by 11/2 games. The Dodgers awoke on slightly shakier ground — and on little sleep. The team did not arrive to its hotel in downtown Denver until past 4 a.m. The Rockies had taken two of three from the Dodgers here in April.
“You’re playing a team you’re chasing, and a team that’s playing good baseball,” Roberts said before the game. “And it’s tough to play up here.”
With its thin air at high altitude, Coors Field saps the life from pitchers. The Rockies have avoided that fate thus far, relying upon a core of young starters and dynamic relievers to stay atop the division. And their lineup can still squash opponents.
Ryu experienced that fate Thursday. He had spent the past 10 days on the disabled list nursing a minor ailment. The Dodgers called it a bruised hip. Roberts called it a strained glute muscle. The nomenclature mattered little: Ryu’s sojourn stemmed from a season-long plan to keep members of the starting rotation fresh.
The rest did not help his performance. The Rockies ambushed Ryu in the first inning and battered him in the second. Ryu appeared incapable of missing barrels, let alone bats.
“He just wasn’t sharp,” Roberts said. “He was missing out over the big part of the plate.”
In both innings, Ryu wobbled in two-out situations. He opened the door for Colorado in the first by walking second baseman DJ LeMahieu and yielding a single to third baseman Nolan Arenado. Two batters later, outfielder Ian Desmond pulled a two-run double into the left-field corner.
The next inning was far worse.
After a leadoff single by catcher Ryan Hanigan, Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes and shortstop Corey Seager combined to compound the trouble. When Rockies pitcher Jeff Hoffman laid down a bunt, Barnes tried to force Hanigan out at second. The throw skipped and bounced off Seager’s glove. It was an error on Barnes, but it also meant trouble for Ryu.
Ryu managed to retire the next two batters. He had less luck with Arenado. Ryu tried a fastball on the outer half of the plate. Arenado extended his arms and hammered a two-run double to the opposite field. The next batter, first baseman Mark Reynolds, smacked an RBI single off the right-field wall.
“We just didn’t execute very well today,” Barnes said. “Left too many pitches over the plate.”
Colorado did not slow down. Reynolds stole second base. Roberts responded by intentionally walking Desmond when Ryu fell behind in the count. Up came outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, a once-venerated hitter who carried a .188 batting average to the plate. Gonzalez turned on a lazy curveball for another two-run double.
By the fourth, the outcome looked secure. The Dodgers offered little resistance against Hoffman, a 24-year-old right-hander making his first start of the season. Hoffman struck out seven batters in the first three innings. In the fourth, he retired the side in nine pitches.
Ryu unraveled in the bottom of the inning. It started in familiar fashion. He walked Arenado. His control lapsed again when he hit Desmond with an 86-mph fastball. Gonzalez poked an RBI single through an empty portion of the infield. Utility man Pat Valaika provided a run-scoring double.
At this point, Ryu fell into discussion with second-base umpire Bill Miller. Roberts left the dugout to mediate, but was turned back. Into the fray came Brian Lee, Ryu’s interpreter. Miller informed Ryu that the pitcher needed to declare whether he was pitching out of the stretch or the windup, a new rule that Ryu was not aware of.
After a brief chat, Lee jogged off the diamond.
Then Ryu balked. A 10th run scored. A lost game grew worse. No late rally could reclaim it.
“It was a balk,” Roberts said. “But he was confused.”