Humble Francis outduels Webb
Rockies lefty has been stellar in two postseason starts
PHOENIX -- As Jeff Francis stood in front of his locker at Chase Field on Thursday night, it was difficult to determine if he'd just thrust himself further into the spotlight with another postseason win or if he'd just been told that he'd been optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs.
With a few miniscule smiles, he showed at least some indication that he was aware of the fact that he'd just helped the Rockies claim an important 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
But at the same time, he certainly wasn't showing the elation one might expect from a rising star, who had just made sure the first NLCS game in Rockies franchise history would be a memorable one.
Then again, what else should have been expected from a guy who has shown nothing but consistent composure while winning both of his first two career postseason starts on the road?
"He's got a slow heartbeat," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said after watching Francis limit the Diamondbacks to one run in 6 2/3 innings. "He doesn't get too excited."
Nobody expected Francis to be doing cartwheels across the visitor's clubhouse. But then again, this type of accomplishment usually warrants more than the "Aw, shucks, I just do my job" type of responses that he provided.
"That's just Jeff's mentality," Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday said. "Jeff's done an excellent job all season of maintaining his composure. Whether he gives up a home run or run or something, he keeps pitching his game. That's always a good quality."
It would prove to be an essential quality on this evening, which began inauspiciously for Francis when he surrendered Eric Byrnes' first-inning RBI double. With one out and facing an early one-run deficit, the Rockies southpaw needed just three more pitches to conquer two nemesis and begin a roll that would see him retire 12 of the next 14 batters that he faced.
"With the Byrnes double, I don't think I made a terrible pitch," Francis said. "He did a good job of putting the bat on the ball. I just felt like if I could keep making those pitches, then the damage would be minimized."
Francis escaped the first-inning jam by getting Conor Jackson and Mark Reynolds to get out in front of his effective changeup. Jackson had homered four times in 23 previous career at-bats against him and Reynolds had collected four hits in his six previous at-bats against the Colorado ace.
"Whenever he gets in trouble, he's going to find a way to make a pitch," Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba said. "When he needs a ground ball, he's going to find a way to get it."
Francis' ability to induce double-play grounders in the fourth, sixth and seventh innings allowed him to escape potentially damaging situations. While the first two instances were important, it was the seventh-inning grounder that will be most memorable.
After surrendering a Chris Snyder leadoff double and then hitting Justin Upton with a pitch, Francis got Augie Ojeda to hit a grounder that didn't seem to be struck hard enough to result in a double play. But when Upton ended his slide by barreling into second baseman Kaz Matsui, who was attempting to relay to first base, second-base umpire Larry Vanover ruled interference.
Consequently, Francis was rewarded with two outs and then forced to go to the bench while stadium personnel cleared debris thrown onto the field by upset Arizona fans. After play was halted for eight minutes, the southpaw's evening ended when he surrendered a bunt single to Jeff Cirillo.
After Matt Herges issued a walk to load the bases, Jeremy Affeldt preserved Francis' effort by getting Stephen Drew to fly out to right field.
"I can't say it felt like another game, because there's definitely that playoff feel with that noise in the stands and the excitement and intensity in the dugout," said Francis, who is 4-0 with a 1.35 ERA in his past four starts at Chase Field. "You just try to slow yourself down as much as possible."
It wasn't just another game. Along with being just his second postseason start, it was one that pitted him against reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, who had won their previous encounter on Sept. 28 and in doing so, established himself as the only pitcher who has beaten the Rockies since Sept. 15.
Webb would be undone by a three-run third inning constructed by the Rockies, who have won 18 of their past 19 games. Francis has been credited with four of those victories.
"He's probably the most underrated pitcher in baseball," Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said. "We count on him every time he takes the mound."
Despite the fact he notched 17 wins in just his third full Major League season this year, Francis is still somewhat of an unknown commodity in the game. But while allowing just three earned runs in the 12 2/3 innings that have encompassed his first two career postseason starts, he's giving many reason to understand why he was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated that they received this week.
Sticking with his humble approach, Francis says he's not concerned about whether or not he's underrated. Instead, he's just enjoying this incredible run of success he and his teammates have encountered.
At least, that's what he said. It's not as if he's actually displaying any sort of emotion that would lead one to this belief.
"We're not out here to prove something," Francis said. "We're just out here to win and take it as far as we can."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.