Bullpen stint for Jorge De La Rosa has salvaged his career

Aug 21, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jorge De La Rosa (29) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Back in May, Carlos Gonzalez found himself playing catch with the greatest Rockies starter in franchise history. They weren’t warming up before the game. CarGo and Jorge De La Rosa were throwing in the middle innings of a game against the Red Sox.

“Ever since I came here in 2009 he’s been a starter, so I kind of make jokes with him when he got sent to the bullpen. I was like, ‘Man this is weird. I never thought I was going to play catch with you in the middle of the game,’ because he’s always been a starter,” Gonzalez said.

De La Rosa was sent to the bullpen after he gave up seven runs and nine hits in 3.1 innings against Boston after coming off the disabled list. Historically a slow starter, De La Rosa struggled more than normal going 1-4 with an 11.41 ERA after six starts to begin the season. Something needed to change. A midseason trip to the bullpen may have been the key to extending the lefty’s career even if he doesn’t finish it here in Denver.

Everything De La Rosa took away from the pen culminated against the best team in baseball in the Chicago Cubs. In the rubber match of the series Sunday, De La Rosa pitched a career-high-tying eight innings, allowing two runs on four hits. It was his 10th quality start of the season; he is now 8-7 with a 5.07 ERA. Since resuming his role as a starter, he has not allowed more than three runs in 11 of his 13 starts. The start, De La Rosa said, was the best he has felt all year.

“[The bullpen] helped me a lot to turn my career around,” De La Rosa said after the game. “The only way I can repay them is go out there and pitch well every five days.”

One of those guys De La Rosa repaid Sunday is Boone Logan. Gonzalez wasn’t the only one to joke with De La Rosa about transitioning to the pen.

“There was no advice we really gave him; it was more just kind of making fun like, ‘Oh you’re in the bullpen now. You’re in our world now,'” Logan said. “You don’t want to go down to the bullpen. It takes a certain breed to go down to the pen. We’re a bunch of weirdos down there.”

Logan commented how quiet De La Rosa is in the clubhouse, but he was still able to take notes from the starter that helped improve his own game.

“You know he can pitch well here in Denver. That’s tough to do,” Logan said. It’s a game of adjustments, but definitely I hadn’t really made adjustments. Now I just have my mindset different. [For me] it was you just play at home to get back on the road. I see [De La Rosa] pitches the same no matter where he is. Now, that’s the attitude.”

Logan said he wasn’t sure exactly what changed mechanically but he saw De La Rosa become more of a happy guy. They both talked more and he feels like the starter was more at ease after his stint in the pen.

“It doesn’t matter how old or how long you’ve been around. Sometimes it’s good to come down there to hang with us for a while. You find a way for sure to get back to where you need to be back in that rotation,” Logan said. “We always say that we’re failed starters down there in the pen so that’s the last place any starter wants to go. I knew he was probably telling himself to find a way to get right again and get back to the starting rotation. And he did. And he’s been doing really good ever since.”

From a mechanics standpoint, manager Walt Weiss saw De La Rosa (whom he affectionately calls Georgie) fall into some patterns in his early starts. His two-seam fastball and curve ball disappeared. De La Rosa began throwing strictly change ups and cutters. He became predictable. The focus in the bullpen was to incorporate his entire pitch mix. De La Rosa said the best advice he got out of the pen was to use more of his pitches. Now the curveball and two-seamer are working again.

“Change up and cutter is a great combo, but if that’s the only combo you’re using it becomes less effective. You want to make it tougher for the hitter to dance with you. [Going to the pen] gave him a chance to exhale. He looks like himself again. I think he’s been the poster boy for how you win here,” Weiss said.

That is one of the reasons Weiss calls the rotation heading into the second half of the season the best he’s ever had. De La Rosa’s veteran presence is invaluable to the development of this young staff.

“Any time you have that example of a guy that not only has done it recently but he’s done it for a sustained period of time,” he said. “That’s powerful for other pitchers to see how he goes about it. Any time an athlete has something he can look at and try to emulate makes him better. That alone I think makes Georgie very valuable.”

Jordan Lyles is one of those young starters embracing a new role in the bullpen. Lyles said De La Rosa is one of his closest friends in the clubhouse. Lyles is doing everything to emulate the staff veteran in revitalizing his career. At one point Lyles held an 8.55 ERA over five starts and the club sent him down to Triple-A at the end of April. Since he was called back up on June 20, he has lowered his ERA 5.68.

“De La has done a good job of making the most of his opportunity coming back. For me I’m not really worried about [my role in the rotation.] My transition has grown in the bullpen and it’s been a little bit easier. I’ve gotten out of that starter mentality,” Lyles said.

While De La Rosa still has that starter mentality, he has proved that he is capable of rebounding and shown how versatile he is as a pitcher coming into the game in any role. This may prove helpful when his two-year contract extension with the club is up at the end of this season. De La Rosa said he tried to not listen to trade rumors around the deadline, but he is uncertain about his future in a Rockies uniform.

Logan wasn’t kidding when he said De La Rosa is very quiet. Even when he pitches well, you might not see him available for a press conference. He has earned that privilege over the past nine seasons. Therefore it was that much more telling when he talked about what it meant to him to get his 100th career win on July 30 in a Rockies uniform.

“I’m really glad it happened here,” De La Rosa said. “When it comes to next year, I don’t know what the plan is. I don’t know if I will come back. It’s not my decision. I was in those trade situations before and you just try to stay focused. That’s what I try to do now. I’m just going to try to finish strong and do my best for the rest of the season. Going to do the same thing I’ve been doing. Try to help any way I can.”

It’s still possible De La Rosa could be elsewhere come the Sept. 1 roster expansion, especially because he has pitched so well and shown how much he has left in the tank. But as long as he is on this team, he will always be expected to be the leader of this staff. As much as De La Rosa wanted to get back into the rotation, the feelings were mutual among his teammates.

“He’s really important for this team,” Gonzalez said. “He’s one of the horses. We understand, and he understands, that he needs to be that number one guy but his track record has always been the same. Too bad that he was sent down to the bullpen but you know he’s back and I feel like whenever he gets going as the season progresses he gets better as a pitcher. He’s shown it in the last couple of outings. As a teammate I’m really happy that he is back in the rotation.”

Maybe spending time in the pen with a bunch of weirdos wasn’t so bad after all.

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