Wednesday, December 26, 2012
On May 15 on a predictably cool evening at AT&T Park, the Colorado Rockies won 5-4 over the San Francisco Giants, but Rex Brothers was losing his way.
Brothers, one of the few Rockies’ draft picks to show promise in recent years, was summoned to the bullpen to protect a white-knuckle lead. The season was already spiraling out of control, so those few games that were winnable required the bullpen to turn out the lights and padlock the doors.
Brothers instead illuminated a growing problem – his lack of command. The former star at Lipscomb, a school he still talks about proudly when asked, walked the bases loaded. The sellout crowd grew louder, their throaty screams creating nerves in the left-hander.
“I finally said enough is enough,’’ Brothers would recall later.
He took a few deep breaths and started attacking hitters like he had for so many years growing up in Tennessee, ascending from a country legend to high school star at Shelbyville Central to college force to the 34th pick in the 2009 draft. The Giants didn’t score. Brothers needed 20 pitches and a pair of strikeouts, but escaped unscathed.
The success foreshadowed failure, hinted at the improvement that Brothers needed to regain traction in his big league career that he always thought possible while at Lipscomb. Brothers traces his struggle to falling back into patterns. He was trying to strike people out, a strategy that worked for so long but could not be consistently maintained against big leaguers whose strike zones are closer to the size of a Tic-Tac than a mailbox.
Five days after his escape in San Francisco, Brothers couldn’t hide from the sobering reality. He needed a tune-up. Brothers was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs, the first of many Rockies’ who required a refresher course last season.
“I had stuff I needed to work on,’’ Brothers admitted. “During the year there were times where I tried to go back to the old way, what might’ve worked before at the lower levels of professional baseball. I'd try to throw a ball past somebody. That caught up with me and that's where I got in trouble. I know that's where I got in trouble. These are good hitters. Give credit where credit is due. Trying to strike them out didn't help at all. I learned that this year. There are times when I'd like the strikeout, sure. But that's not the first thing on my mind."
Had Brothers’ season ended in Colorado Springs, it would have been as disappointing as his team’s. The Rockies set a single-season franchise record for losses, their manager Jim Tracy walked away from the final year of his $1.4 million contract rather than share a clubhouse with the assistant general manager, and pitching coach Bob Apodaca resigned in June.
Brothers, however, wasn’t about to let his struggles define him. He worked hard for more than two weeks for the Sky Sox, and not long after he returned to the Rockies he was greeted by a face familiar to Lipscomb sports fans. Bo McLaughlin, the first Bison player to reach the big leagues as the 14th pick of the Houston Astros in 1975, was promoted from the minor leagues to a Rockies’ co-pitching coach job with Jim Wright. McLaughlin is known for his laid-back approach, exchanging ideas easily with his pitchers.
He made a strong connection with Memphis native and top prospect Drew Pomeranz last year, helping him return to the big leagues. McLaughlin and Brothers were a good fit, even if took a little time for the 25-year-old to see steady results.
In the big picture, Brothers was fine. He won a team-best seven straight games from May 15 to Aug. 23. That, however, spoke more to the Rockies’ decision to go to a four-man rotation with designated piggyback relievers than Brothers’ dominance. He was admittedly a vulture on occasion, swooping in for a few wins because the starters were long gone before they could qualify for a decision.
As Brothers tried to get back on track, he continued to listen to McLaughlin, Wright and his teammates. Brothers has talked extensively about how lucky he has been to break into the big leagues with veteran relievers Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle. Not that those two are serious, but they actually judge each other on the accuracy of their throws in warm-ups. The veterans have told Brothers repeatedly that it’s more important to get outs than strikeouts. That’s a lesson that young pitchers reluctantly embrace especially someone like Brothers, whose fastball reaches 98 miles per hour. Brothers, after all, did tie Pomeranz for the team-high in Ks last season with 83. It’s a cautionary tale that strikeouts are a weapon, but not everything.
“I have to make hitters put the ball in play as soon as possible in an at-bat. That starts by getting strike one. I've had several conversations down in the bullpen with our veterans, Raffy and Matt, and they preach over and over again, don't take a day for granted, stay the course, be aggressive,’’ Brothers said. “Any way I can pick those guys' brains and figure out what works for me and what doesn't, the better off I'll be sooner, rather than later."
Belisle has grown close to Brothers, lockering next to him at Coors Field. Belisle is considered a power pitcher, but impresses his teammates with his confidence and attitude.
“You want guys who are going to get after it and make no excuses,’’ explained Belisle on why he likes Brothers. “We know where we pitch (at altitude and hitter-friendly Coors Field), but we have to have guys who want the ball everyday and embrace the challenge.’’
Even with a layover in Colorado Springs, Brothers did his part. He pitched 67 2/3 innings, and his 75 appearances were second only to Belisle’s 80 for the Rockies.
Brothers’ season really took off on Aug.1. He posted a 1.52 ERA over his final 23 2/3 innings, and there was an explanation. He started using his changeup more. For the most part, Brothers has been a two-pitch pitcher – fastball and nasty 84-mph slider. That combination has been and likely remains effective against left-handers. They batted just .206 off Brothers (21-for-102) with just one home run off him.
In contrast, right-handers batted .282 (42-for-149) with four home runs and an .832 OPS. It’s why a second off-speed pitch can make such a difference. The Rockies have designs on Brothers being a closer someday, not just a human eraser versus lefties.
“The changeup is a lot better now,’’ Brother said. “I started throwing some very effective changeups those last two months. Anytime I can get a swing-and-miss changeup or strike someone out with my changeup, it's only adding to my repertoire and overall success. It can take some of the focus off the fastball."
Brothers might very well be the Rockies’ ninth-inning answer at some point during the 2013 season. Colorado, though, wants to continue to ease him into high-leverage situations. That’s why they traded for Houston’s Wilton Lopez at the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Nashville in early December. He closed for the Astros last year, and will give the Rockies yet another option late in games.
New manager Walt Weiss, a former Rockies’ player, wants to win with a strong relief corps and mighty offense. That’s how the 1995 Rockies reached the playoffs, and Weiss believes the bullpen can be a strength, including Brothers.
“Rex will be in there late. A lot depends on who is coming up that inning. We can mix and match,’’ Weiss said. “We want guys that other teams don’t want to face. Brothers can be one of those guys. He continues to get better and better.’’
Brothers did not experience linear growth last season. His brief slump of poor outings might have been the best thing that happened to him.
“That's part of being a competitor, being a good self-evaluator. I've had my times this year I've had to step back and address some things, try to get back on the right foot,’’ Brothers said. “Whenever things are going well, it's best for me to still step back and say, 'Which areas can I get better at?' and not get that sense of complacency. That may have affected me before. I have had my rough stretches, learned from them and moved on. More times than not, that's how you learn your lessons, the hard way."