Gabe Kapler

Giants must continue Coors success as NL wild-card race tightens

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SAN FRANCISCO -- With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the fourth inning at Coors Field on Tuesday night, Colorado Rockies outfielder Kris Bryant checked his swing on a cutter down in the zone. He wasn't able to prevent contact, and he stood and watched for a beat as the ball left his bat at just 56 mph.

The bloop ended up landing softly on the edge of the grass in right field, scoring two runs and tying the game. After a grounder and a hard single that shot through the hard infield in Denver, the Rockies had a four-run inning against the Chicago Cubs, who ended up losing on a night when they could have made up ground on the teams surrounding them in the Wild Card race, including the Giants.

There isn't a tougher place to play than Coors Field, where the Rockies just took two of three from the Cubs. Even when the Rockies are bad -- as they are this year -- they generally play more like a league-average team at their homer-happy home ballpark.

The Rockies won just 74 games in 2021, but they went 48-33 at home that season. Last year they won just 68 total games, but finished a game above .500 at home. They're 31-39 at home this year but just 22-53 on the road.

The Giants have never looked forward to these trips, not just because the Rockies play much better at home, but because the offensive environment tends to leave the pitching staff gassed and the thin air leads to hitters getting dehydrated and being at greater risk for injury. But over the past three seasons, Coors has been very favorable to a group that needs another huge weekend.

The Giants are 17-5 in Denver since the start of the 2021 season, including a three-game sweep this June. Last year they were seven games under .500 on the road overall but went 7-3 at Coors.

Dating back to last Aug. 21, the Giants have won eight straight there, tying their best streak at a ballpark that opened in 1995. The previous eight-game winning streak covered games in 2021 and the start of 2022.

This particular group of players and coaches has made it look easy. But they insist it's definitely not.

"I know we have had success in Colorado. I still think it's a really tough place to go play," manager Gabe Kapler said. "The ball bounces or you don't make a play and you give somebody an additional out and they can really punish you for it, and they have guys who are pretty good at hitting in that ballpark."

Giants players and coaches point to a variety of reasons for their recent success in Denver. Every hitter is more comfortable there, but some believe they gain an extra edge given how difficult Oracle Park is. Perhaps some pressure is lifted knowing that it's going to be an offensive game and one missed opportunity with a runner in scoring position won't cost you. Others point to the fact that Coors elevates every hitter, which is helpful to a lineup built on the sum of its parts, not around one or two stars. There's a domino effect, and that helps positivity flow through the dugout.

The Giants match up every night, but they do feel particularly comfortable doing it against the Rockies bullpen. Over the last three seasons, the Giants have reached double-digit runs six times in 22 games at Coors Field, with double-digit hits in more than half of those games and 34 homers. They have hit for more power while maintaining their disciplined approach, which led to an 11-walk game earlier this season. During that three-game sweep in June, the Giants posted a .405 on-base percentage as a group.

Every team hits in Denver, but the Giants believe they are better positioned than most to also have their pitchers survive. They have built their staff around groundball pitchers, and while that can lead to plenty of singles at Coors, that has generally helped them limit damage. Over the last three seasons, the staff has nearly twice as many zero-homer games (nine) in Denver than multi-homer games (five).

The Giants are 41-16 overall against the Rockies since Kapler took over and just swept them at Oracle Park to get back into the Wild Card race, but they will see a slightly different look this weekend. Bryant, the biggest trade acquisition of the Farhan Zaidi Era, has played just 110 games since signing a $182 million deal before the 2022 season, but he returned to the lineup on Monday and has homered in back-to-back games.

Charlie Blackmon now is 37, but as comfortable as ever at Coors, posting a .887 OPS at home this year. The Giants staff has a lot of respect for Ryan McMahon, Nolan Jones and other young Rockies, and on Wednesday, Kapler pointed out that "their lineup can look pretty deep."

It's a lineup built for a unique ballpark, and Logan Webb will get the first crack Thursday. Keaton Winn will pitch Friday, with Alex Cobb and some combination of bulk innings arms likely taking down the weekend.

If Cobb does pitch Saturday, he'll be watched closely. The Giants will go from Denver to Phoenix for a massive two-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and then play four against the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers. They'll need to be at full strength, and that's not often the case when you leave Denver. It's a ballpark that has kept head trainer Dave Groeschner busy for years.

"For a four-game series it's not even about just the chess match of the game, it's also about the chess match of the body, too," third baseman J.D. Davis said. "There's the elevation, one hour less of sleep (because of the time zone change), so we've got to stay hydrated and get enough sleep and really be fine-tuned for those four games. You don't really worry about practicing before, but you really give it your best shot during those four games, because it's going to be kind of a battle, I think. Games three and four, that elevation and time change really is different."

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Teams usually hope to just survive a weekend in Denver, but the Giants flew to Colorado with a half-game deficit in the Wild Card race and they need to thrive. With the Cubs facing the Diamondbacks this weekend, the Giants have a chance to make up some serious ground if they can keep their Coors Field magic going.

"I don't think there's one thing or another, but I do think that we believe in ourselves in that ballpark, and honestly we believe in ourselves everywhere," Kapler said. "I think that just transfers when we go to Denver."

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