PHOENIX — A pitching duel in the desert between the Rockies’ Chad Kuhl and Arizona’s Merrill Kelly left no margin for error.
The Rockies learned that the hard way when the Diamondbacks ambushed reliever Carlos Estevez with two home runs in the eighth inning en route to a 4-1 victory Friday night at Chase Field.
“This was Carlos’ 10th outing of the season and coming into the game he’d given up just two runs,” manager Bud Black said. “(He was) maybe not as crisp as he’s been all year. We’ve seen a better version of Carlos in the past, but he’ll get there.”
Kelly nearly pitched the first complete game of his career, holding the Rockies to seven hits over 8 2/3 innings.
“He changed speeds great,” Black said. “He had a fastball up to 94 (mph) and he threw a lot of changeups at 88. So not a big gap, but there was a lot of movement on his pitches and the changeup had good depth to it. That little cutter gets off the right-handers’ barrel and gets in on the hands of the lefty. He pitched all around the zone.”
Arizona manager Torey Lovullo made a visit to the mound with two outs in the ninth after Elias Diaz singled to right. Lovullo, much to the crowd’s pleasure, left Kelly in. But when Brendan Rodgers whistled another single to right, Lovullo called in closer Mark Melancon.
Melancon promptly walked Sam Hilliard, loading the bases, before getting Jose Iglesias to ground out back to the mound to slam the door.
Colorado finished the night batting 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. That inability to get a clutch hit was the Rockies’ bugaboo on the road last season.
Estevez didn’t look sharp from the beginning of his outing. Pinch-hitter Jordan Ludlow nearly hit a homer to right, but it was foul by just a few feet. Estevez ended up striking out Ludlow, but Daulton Varshow hammered a solo shot to deep right on a pitch that was high and out of the strike zone.
Pavin Smith followed with a single, took second on Estevez’s wild pitch and trotted home on David Peralta’s two-run homer to left.
“That pitch was down the middle, for sure — a fastball,” Black said.
The Rockies went 5-1 on their just-completed homestand and were hoping for a positive start on their road trip. Instead, they lost their fifth consecutive road game.
Kuhl, though not as crisp as in his other starts this season, pitched another superb game, allowing one run over six innings on just three hits. He struck out five and walked two.
“That’s a good bunch over there, they find out at-bats and aren’t just up there free-swinging,” Kuhl said. “They did a nice job of making me work for everything I got tonight.”
Black was impressed with Kuhl’s ability to get out of trouble, especially when he fell behind in counts.
“He matched (Kelly), for sure,” Black said. “He had to work a little bit harder tonight, but he worked through it. He showed me something. Even though he wasn’t as efficient as he has been, he still made pitches at critical times.”
After five starts, Kuhl’s ERA is a sparkling 1.82. That ERA is the fourth-lowest through a pitcher’s first five starts — at the beginning of a season — in franchise history. It’s the lowest since Ubaldo Jiménez posted a 0.79 ERA through five starts in 2010.
Kuhl has given up just 16 hits (only four for extra bases), with 22 strikeouts and nine walks. Opponents are hitting .150 against the right-hander.
Not bad for a No. 5 pitcher whom the Rockies picked up for $3 million.
Kelly dominated the Rockies, just as he’s dominated almost everyone this season. He struck out eight, walked two and now owns a minuscule 1.22 ERA.
After issuing a two-out walk to Iglesias in the second inning, and until Ryan McMahon led off the seventh with a single, Kelly set down 13 consecutive batters.
In the first inning, the Rockies looked as if they might solve Kelly. Connor Joe led off with a single, advanced to second on Charlie Blackmon’s sacrifice bunt and scored on C.J. Cron’s double that just caught the left-field line.
But the Rockies’ hopes of knocking out Kelly early was just a desert mirage.
Arizona tied the game, 1-1, in the second, combining a leadoff single by Josh Rojas, a double by Ketel Marte and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Seth Beer, which right fielder Randal Grichuk caught in foul territory.
Kuhl was against the ropes but he struck out Nick Ahmed and Jose Herrera to end the inning.