Thursday, September 01, 2011
The first thing you notice about Rex Brothers is his fastball. It zips toward the plate, then explodes into the glove like it’s been electrocuted. The Rockies’ reliever raced through the minor leagues because of his heater. He made everyone from Josh Hamilton to Nelson Cruz look silly with his stuff.
Then came the hiccup.
After two largely successful months in the big leagues, Brothers began getting hit. An Aug. 3 outing at Coors Field struck him in the face as hard as Phillies’ Ryan Howard hit his fastball over the left-field fence.
It was time for Brothers to counter-punch, a necessary requirement in any rookie’s learning curve.
“You can’t do the same things in this league. You have to mix it up to have success,’’ said Brothers, the 34th overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Lipscomb. “I found out that out.’’
Not without help.
Everyone from Rockies’ star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to fellow reliever Matt Reynolds pulled Brothers aside and offered advice. The message: Even with his terrific repertoire – a 97-mph fastball and diabolical 83 mph slider – he needed to rely less on brawn and more on brains.
“I have reminded him a couple of times that he was doing the same thing over and over again,’’ said Tulowitzki of Brother’s habit of throwing his fastball only on the inner-half of the plate early in counts.
“He needed to change some things. In a pressure situation with nobody on base, use a different strategy. Pick your hitters that you want to throw your best stuff to. He needed to pitch the seventh and eighth hitters differently than say Justin Upton or Matt Kemp.’’
Reynolds, the other left-hander in the Rockies’ bullpen, pointed out the patterns to Brothers. Relievers, especially those without a third pitch, can’t provide a blueprint for the opposition.
“We couldn’t be more different in how we pitch and our stuff. But I went through the same thing last year as the league adjusted to me,’’ said Reynolds, a late-season call-up last year. “We talk in the bullpen. You watch video of hitters and how you can set them up. It all makes a difference.’’
Consistency determines success in the marathon that is major league baseball. Be good for a long time, and it will be a great season. Stubbornness can be a liability. Brothers, however, was all ears when his teammates stepped in. The results have been encouraging for the 23-year-old.
He entered Wednesday night with a streak of nine consecutive scoreless appearances since Aug. 9. He is averaging 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings, the fifth best ratio among rookie relievers this season.
“I have already learned a lot and I know I have to keep improving,’’ Brothers said. “It’s different up here. Even on the first pitch, you can’t just throw a fastball down the middle. Guys will sit on it and hit the mistakes a long way. And when you are behind in the count, you can’t come off any pitch. Things weren’t going well for me in three or four outings and I had to make adjustments. If you don’t, you don’t stay here.’’
Brothers has earned respect in the clubhouse as much for his attitude as his ability. Tulowitzki labeled him the best listener of any young player who’s been promoted in his five years with the Rockies. Brothers has embraced every challenge. He posted his first save in August when closer Rafael Betancourt was not available.
It’s not out of the question that Brothers could evolve into the Rockies’ closer someday, possibly next season.
“It was cool being out there in that situation. The crowd is into it. There’s a lot of energy. You feel the nerves. It’s like a game within the game,’’ Brothers said.
Typically, Brothers’ season would be ending right now in the minor leagues. He has a month left, and said his powerful arm feels strong. At a time when the team is struggling, Brothers is determined to make a strong impression entering the offseason before returning home to Tennessee.
“I am not tired. I am not worried about the radar grab. I just have to be smart and keep executing my pitches,’’ Brothers said. “I know I can’t let up or give away any pitch.’’