PHOENIX (AP) — A deceptively different version of Joe Saunders cost the Colorado Rockies a chance to keep up in the NL West.
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Saunders altered his approach from 10 days earlier to pitch an eight-inning gem, Kelly Johnson hit a two-run homer and the Arizona Diamondbacks dropped the Rockies farther back in the NL West with a 3-1 victory Tuesday night.
“He was throwing balls everywhere and we were making it a lot easier on him because we were swinging at bad pitches,” Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez said. “We just need to be more patient.”
The Rockies had a day off following Sunday’s 11-inning loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers and were hoping to keep up in the division against the last-place Diamondbacks.
Jorge De La Rosa (8-5) pitched well enough to keep Colorado close, but the Rockies couldn’t solve Saunders (3-6), who had allowed seven runs in seven-plus innings of a 13-4 loss to the Rockies on Sept. 10.
Saunders changed his approach for the rematch, relying on his breaking balls to get ahead in the count early and set up his fastball.
The switch was effective and the veteran left-hander held the Rockies to a run and six hits while striking out seven, dropping them 2 games behind San Francisco in the NL West.
“Joe had us swinging over the top of the ball. We were just rolling the ball to the infield,” Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. “He had his changeup, his slider, his curveball working very effectively and he was on the plate early in the count a lot more than he was against us the other day.”
Johnson had the big blow for the Diamondbacks, hitting his two-run homer off De La Rosa in the third inning. Saunders did the rest and Juan Gutierrez pitched a perfect ninth for his 11th save to give Arizona just its fourth win in 19 games.
The only drawback for the Diamondbacks was breaking the all-time season strikeout record. Arizona whiffed six times on the night to reach 1,403 in 150 games, blowing past the record of 1,399 set by Milwaukee in 2001.
“We have to get better at that,” Arizona interim manager Kirk Gibson said. “We struck out many times with guys in scoring position. That is where it really hurts you. If we struck out that many times and we are in first place, nobody would care. That is not the case, but that is not the reason why we are where we are at. It is one of many reasons.”
Colorado has gone on what’s become a now-predictable late-season run again this season, winning 13 of 16 — 10 in a row at one point — to go from 7 games behind to within sight of the NL West lead.
One inning cost them a chance to keep up with San Francisco, which beat the Cubs 1-0.
It came with two outs in the third, when Stephen Drew singled and Ryan Roberts followed with a run-scoring single. Drew had barely reached the bench when Johnson hit an inside-out, two-run shot to left on the next pitch for his 22nd of the season.
De La Rosa allowed just one hit over the next four innings and was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth after giving up three runs and six hits.
“He threw seven innings and there were six zeros and one inning where they scored three runs with two outs and nobody on. That’s it,” Tracy said. “He was very, very effective other than that.”
Decent, just not good enough against Saunders in one of his few quality starts with Arizona.
The main cog in the trade for Dan Haren with the Los Angeles Angels, Saunders has mostly struggled since the deadline deal. He’s won just two of 10 starts with a 4.88 ERA and had given up seven runs — four earned — in each of his past two outings.
Saunders looked good against the heavy-hitting Rockies, though, erasing a baserunner in the second inning with a double play, then getting a lift from Drew’s diving catch on De La Rosa’s liner to short in the third.
The Rockies got the run in the eighth when Miguel Olivo led off with a double and scored on Spilborgh’s single, but Saunders got a deep fly out and two strikeouts to end the inning.
“It was nice to go out there and show people what I am capable of,” Saunders said. “My last one against these guys it was all about missing and throwing balls. The biggest key tonight was throwing strike one. That was what I tried to do. Get ahead of these guys because these guys are a very aggressive team and can hit pretty good.”
Notes: Rockies 2B Eric Young Jr. was held out of the lineup and could be used sparingly in the three-game series due to lingering soreness in his right shin. Young missed 69 games earlier this season with a stress fracture in his right fibula and was limited to pinch-hitting duties Sunday against the Dodgers. … De La Rosa had won four straight starts against Arizona.