The bus ride from Coors Field to Denver International Airport lasts about 30 minutes, and during his years as a player and coach, Dave Roberts greeted each departure the same way. He would pass out from the fatigue of a series in thin air at high altitude, where baseball games operate outside the rules of convention.
“Emotionally,” he said, “you’re just spent.”
He expected nothing less after finishing his first weekend here as manager of the Dodgers. His first-place club had just completed a madcap 12-10 comeback victory over the Colorado Rockies to capture its fourth consecutive series. He slumped in his chair inside the visiting manager’s office, feeling more relief than joy, more exhaustion than exhilaration.
A game like this will do that to you: His team gagged away a six-run lead only to erase a three-run deficit in the ninth inning. The Rockies scored five in the eighth. The Dodgers countered with five in the ninth.
Pitchers from both teams acted as if gasoline coated the mound. Rockies closer Jake McGee uncorked a wild pitch to tie the score in the ninth. Chase Utley untied it with an RBI double, and Corey Seager tacked on a run-scoring double afterward. Kenley Jansen, one of Los Angeles’ few fireproof relievers, closed the door in the bottom of the inning.
“Crazy stuff can happen here,” Jansen said. “And it just did.”
Up six runs after the third, the Dodgers watched the advantage disappear because of shoddy relief pitching and sloppy fielding. Alex Wood gave up five runs in five innings, in part hurt by a misjudgment of the wind in left field by rookie Trayce Thompson. Chris Hatcher looked vulnerable again, yielding three runs and recording only one out just two days after a separate struggle here. The Rockies pounded Luis Avilan for two more runs after he replaced Hatcher.
Thompson scored the tying run in the ninth, but he still excoriated himself for his defense after the game. His mistake ignited Colorado’s initial comeback in the fourth. With two outs and a runner on second, outfielder Gerardo Parra lofted a fly ball. Thompson took his eyes off the baseball as he approached the wall. He spun 180 degrees to see a double land at his feet.
“For that to happen to me,” Thompson said, “that’s my worst nightmare.”
A run scored to cut the lead to five. The Dodgers had broken out early against Rockies starter Jordan Lyles. A two-run double by Yasiel Puig keyed a four-run rally in the second. Joc Pederson homered in the third and Seager drilled a two-run triple.
But now the Rockies kept hounding Wood and his fielders. Forced to start at third base because of Justin Turner’s sore toe, Howie Kendrick could not make a play on a bunt by reliever Chris Rusin, which aided a three-run Rockies flurry.
“You never know what’s going to happen at Coors,” Wood said.
Wood departed with runners at the corners and none out in the sixth. His team led by three. Pedro Baez let a run score when he committed an error on a bunt by second baseman D.J. LeMahieu. Baez loaded the bases with none out, but escaped without allowing another run.
And so Roberts asked Hatcher, his nominal setup man, to hold a two-run lead in the eighth. Hatcher could not even record two outs. He served up a leadoff double to backup catcher Dustin Garneau. A single by pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn pulled the Rockies to within one.
The elements in Denver can disrupt the confidence of any pitching staff. But the trouble with the Dodgers’ relief corps, Hatcher especially, has marred much of the season. Hatcher has a 7.27 earned-run average.
“It’s the missing fastball command,” Roberts said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
Colorado gifted Hatcher an out with a bunt. Hatcher returned the favor by walking rookie Trevor Story. Roberts turned to Avilan, who had been in the minors until earlier this week. Carlos Gonzalez greeted him with a run-scoring single to tie it, 7-7. The ball rolled into right field, where Puig overran it to let another runner score. The play looked like slapstick and the day looked lost.
But the veterans on the club understood the vagaries of this park. Adrian Gonzalez led off the ninth with a single, a reminder of the opportunity still in front of the group. Kendrick singled, Enrique Hernandez walked and Thompson drove in a run when he grounded into a force out.
With two outs, A.J. Ellis rose off the bench. He roped a fastball into center to reduce the deficit to 10-9. As Utley came to the plate, Thompson stood at third base and Seager stood in the on-deck circle. They shared the same thought: Utley was about to tie this game.
Turns out, the Dodgers received some help. McGee threw a fastball in the dirt and Thompson dashed home. Four pitches later, Utley put them in front.
“Give credit to our guys,” Utley said. “We battled in the ninth inning.”
They did, and the group showed the strain afterward. As Roberts spoke with reporters in his office, Adrian Gonzalez entered with a gift.
“Champagne!” he said as he placed a bottle of Coors Banquet on the desk.
Roberts laughed and thanked his first baseman. But he did not reach for the bottle. It was a day for exhalation, not celebration.
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes