Rockies relievers find redemption

Pair of Rockies relievers finds redemption

PHOENIX -- Reliever Scott Dohmann has been a key figure in the biggest turnaround of the Colorado Rockies' season. But forgive him for not wanting to hear about it.

"I've got my guard up," Dohmann said. "Going into this season, we had high hopes for this year and it didn't turn out so well. That being said, I'm going day by day. I'm not taking anything for granted anymore."

The bullpen has actually taken forward steps on two occasions. After a relief staff with five rookies out of seven members went 1-7 with a 9.00 ERA and seven blown saves in nine chances through April 28, the Rockies strengthened the staff with veterans such as Dan Miceli, Jay Witasick and Mike DeJean.

But Miceli suffered a season-ending foot injury, and Witasick was traded to Oakland at the deadline. Yet, the bullpen continues to achieve. Even better for the Rockies, the two that took the biggest fall for the horrid start -- the right-handed Dohmann and fellow rookie righty Ryan Speier, who were both sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs -- have helped power the latest surge.

The Rockies are 11-8 since Dohmann reappeared on Aug. 25. Speier had a brief stint in August, and returned for good at the end of the Triple-A season.

The Rockies braced for suffering in the beginning when they gave key roles to Speier, who was last year's Rolaids Minor League Relief Man award winner at Double-A Tulsa but hadn't pitched higher, and Dohmann, who had some solid moments but also displayed inconsistency last season.

But in April, Dohmann was 0-1 with an 18.90 ERA, five home runs allowed and a whopping .486 batting average against in nine appearances, and Speier was 1-1 with a 9.82 ERA and a .417 average against. Colorado devoted this season to development, but repeatedly squandering leads threatened to set back the progress of the team and the two pitchers.

Their remedial periods were lengthy. Dohmann went 2-1 with a 4.38 ERA in 34 appearances at Colorado Springs, and Speier was 2-2 with a 4.99 ERA in 45 appearances.

"It's funny, because this year I've had probably the worst year statistically, but I feel like I'm a way better pitcher than I was the past couple of years," Speier said. "I learned a ton, much of it through lack of success."

They returned much better.

Dohmann, predictable at the dawn of the season, learned new ways to mix up his fastball and slider and began to develop a changeup. Since returning, he is 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA and has held opponents to a .156 average in 17 games. Dohmann has become the bridge from the middle of the game to late relievers DeJean and Brian Fuentes.

At Colorado Springs, Speier turned his slider into two pitches, a sharper one that deals with the challenging altitude of Coors Field, and the sweeping one that helped him dominate the lower Minors. He has had two call-ups since and has posted microscopic numbers -- 0.96 ERA and a .117 average against -- in five appearances.

"They didn't go down for two weeks and come back up," said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. "They both went down for an extended period of time. Also, I think that just adds credibility to our initial evaluation that with what we had available, these guys were the right guys for the job, but a little more seasoning would have been nice."

They're not finished products. Dohmann has 26 strikeouts in 25 innings but his 14 walks -- 10 in 18 1/3 innings since his return -- could stand to be lowered. Speier has just five strikeouts against eight walks in 16 2/3 total innings and will most likely spend his career pitching with little margin for error.

But after experiencing the worst at the beginning of the season and becoming better for it, they've engendered confidence.

The emphasis on avoiding complacency should help Dohmann be conscious not to fall into patterns.

"I hope so," Dohmann said when asked if he has destroyed the "book" on him from before, when hitters figured he'd throw the fastball to set up the slider. "It's all about adjustments."

Next season, the Rockies plan on having more of a veteran flavor than what they had to open 2005. But the hard lessons he learned during last season and this one have made Speier a candidate for a key role.

The plan to fortify the bullpen with veterans next season could mean more development time for Speier, but Colorado sees him as a viable Major League candidate.

"I think I struggled with that from the first time I was up, always feeling like everyone's eyes were on me, just really getting away from what I can do," Speier said. "Instead of focusing on who the hitter was in front of me, I was worrying about other things I have no control over. I tried to get away from that."

Listed at 6-foot-7, Speier is pitching at 210 pounds, about 20 fewer than two years ago. Last year, after he earned 37 saves at Tulsa, he pitched in the Arizona Fall League and worked out in Denver in the Rockies' winter development program, all of which helped him make the team in the spring.

But this winter, he'll concentrate on strength training and proper eating, hoping to report for 2006 at 220 pounds. He believes increased strength and balance could help him avoid fatigue, which in turn could help him repeat his delivery consistently.

But nothing will go further than the on-the-job training Dohmann and Speier received this season.

"I think you can definitely say both of these kids are going to have first look over anybody that we might acquire," said Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.