DENVER -- The trials of 2012 turned out to be a gift for Rockies left-handed relief pitcher Rex Brothers. After making the Opening Day roster for the first time, Brothers struggled to a 2-2 record and 5.87 ERA, with a scary 12 walks in 15 1/3 innings, plus a .359 opponents' batting average. All of that called for a trip back to Triple-A Colorado Springs. But from his return June 2 to season's end, Brothers sizzled -- 6-0 with a 3.27 ERA, 62 strikeouts against 25 walks in 52 1/3 innings and a minuscule .214 opponents' batting average. Brothers posted a 1.52 ERA after Aug. 1.
It was a classic case of learning the hard way. If Brothers, who turned 25 on Tuesday, has truly internalized the lessons that hard-throwing relievers must learn, he could serve as an example of how trying times -- and with a 68-94 record last season, the Rockies had plenty of them -- can lead to success. Before turning his year around, Brothers had to diversify his approach. The early-season experience taught him that overthrowing in an attempt to strike out every hitter doesn't work at the top level. After four appearances at Colorado Springs, which gave him a chance to step back and revise his strategy more than work on any specific pitches, Brothers returned better able to force batters to put pitches into play early in counts. "That's part of being a competitor, being a good self-evaluator," Brothers said. "I've had my times I've had to step back and address some things, try to get back on the right foot. Even when 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." Key to Brothers' resurgence was the gradual development of his changeup, which became as much a weapon for him as his heavy, sinking fastball and his hard slider. A Rockies supplemental first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Brothers made it to the Majors by the middle of 2011 with his hard pitches. Brothers had an encouraging debut in 2011 -- 1-2, 2.88 ERA in 48 appearances, with 59 strikeouts to 20 walks. However, big league hitters quickly adjusted. "There have been times where I tried to go back to the old way, what might've worked before at the lower levels of professional baseball," Brothers said. "I'd try to throw a ball past somebody. I know that's where I got in trouble. "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." The changeup became a weapon he could use at any time. "I started throwing some very effective changeups the last two months," Brothers said. "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." The Rockies' overall struggles reduced the chances for the late bullpen, but the Rockies, under former manager Jim Tracy, developed a decent end-of-the-game strategy, with veteran right-hander Matt Belisle and Brothers serving as setup men for closer Rafael Betancourt. Brothers also leaned on Belisle and Betancourt for advice about facing hitters and handling late-inning relief. Now the Rockies expect Brothers to be reliable from the beginning. Having leaned heavily on Belisle, to the tune of a National League-leading 80 appearances last year and 230 in the past three seasons, the Rockies added to the late bullpen by trading starter Alex White to the Astros for right-handed ground-ball specialist Wilton Lopez. The versatile Belisle can be used in any number of late-game situations. Brothers and Lopez will have one-inning roles and could be used matchup-style in a closing role when new manager Walt Weiss wants to rest Betancourt. "Rex will be in there late," Weiss said. "A lot depends on who is coming up that inning. We can mix and match. 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."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.