Justin Lawrence shows improvement in Rockies win

Thomas Harding

By Thomas Harding

CHICAGO — Rockies reliever Justin Lawrence didn’t yell or pump his fist. He was happy, no doubt, but as he left at the end of the sixth inning, he was almost as quiet as the Wrigley Field fans whose expectations he built up before dashing them.

Lawrence replaced starter Ryan Feltner with one out and a runner at second in the sixth. The runner took third when shortstop Garret Hampson couldn’t corral Lawrence’s pickoff throw, then Lawrence walked Jared Young with two outs. But in what was a theme to this rare Rockies winning road trip, Lawrence ended the threat by inducing a groundout.

“The focus is the next two weeks — we’re playing really good division teams the rest of the way, and honestly that’s the situation I want to pitch in,” said Lawrence, a 12th-round pick in 2015. “I want to keep that confidence with the coaching staff to say, ‘Hey, we have a guy here in the organization that can get those big outs for us.’”

The Rockies completed just their third winning road trip — second of more than one series — this season for a club that’s 24-48 on the road and last in the NL West but looking for progress.

The notable improvement this season of Lawrence and the general performance of the group, especially on this trip, might represent just that. Rockies relievers gave up just one run in 11 innings while going 3-2 against the Cubs and White Sox.

“We didn’t swing the bats great, but we pitched really well on this road trip,” manager Bud Black said. “I’m proud of the pitching staff. Everybody contributed in a lot of different ways.

“Our starters were fine. Ryan [5 1/3 innings, three runs, six hits, four strikeouts] was credible today, made some strides. Overall, I like the way he threw the ball, and the bullpen was outstanding.”

The relief work was necessary. Randal Gruchuk’s two-run single keyed a three-run first inning — the Rockies’ first top-of-the-first runs since Aug. 2 at San Diego, and their first three-run first inning on the road since May 28 at Washington. Connor Joe, battling for playing time next year, added a solo homer in the second. Beyond that, the Rockies needed their pitching.

Lawrence came through in the toughest situation.

In his sixth and longest stint in the Majors this season of bouncing between the Majors and Triple-A Albuquerque, Lawrence has a 2.95 ERA. He’ll enter 2023 without Minor League options, but his concern may be his role rather than if he has one.

“It’s what you want from a guy who’s trying to establish himself as a Major League relief pitcher,” Black said. “What I liked was there were a bunch of strikes and a lot of balls were in the strike zone. He went after them, and they had good at-bats. They made him work, but he got it done with some good pitches.”

There are still questions, with Tyler Kinley missing the beginning of next season as he recovers from arm surgery and lefty Lucas Gilbreath hoping a recent PRP treatment will correct his elbow issue. There’s also the potential free agent Estévez, whose strong second half (1.58 ERA) has made him a priority to retain. A decision will have to be made on the arbitration-eligible Lamet, who has pitched well in relief since joining the Rockies but may desire a return to starting — his job with the Padres in years past.

Should Lawrence prove dependable, he could satisfy a club priority — developing relievers, so they don’t become dependent on bidding against other clubs. Lawrence understands, even though yo-yoing between the Majors and Triple-A is difficult. His is a similar path to that of Estévez and Scott Oberg, a key bullpen member before blood clotting issues forced him off the mound, in that he needed every season of Minor League options to gain his footing.

“It’s part of the process and you’ve got to trust in it,” Lawrence said. “Whenever they make a decision to send you back down and call you back at whatever moment, you’ve got to trust that it’s for the betterment of your career and the betterment of the team.

“Then you put a good stretch of games together, and it’s like, ‘Let’s test him, put a younger guy in close situations.’ And the key word is confidence, not just in myself but in the team, the coaching staff, the guys on defense, the organization as a whole.”

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