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Rockies rookie relievers relishing their big league opportunities

Despite a down season from the team, it’s always fun to see guys achieve their dreams

DENVER, Colo. — We’re just about two and a half weeks removed from the All-Star Break and the Rockies are sitting at 31-44 with a 25-16 home record and an MLB-worst 6-28 road record. The bullpen ERA is 5.25; the starter ERA is 4.69; and the team batting average is .245. However, beyond the bad team stats, there are some good individual storylines with this team. Three relievers made their major-league debuts this year, and they are relishing the opportunity to be big leaguers.

Ben Bowden (No. 13 PuRP) was the only lefty reliever to break camp with the Rockies, making his first Opening Day roster. He made his debut on April 2 and allowed two runs on three hits over 1 13 innings with two strikeouts. Despite his up-and-down season since then, Bowden is thrilled to finally be a big leaguer.

“It was obviously something you dream about as a kid and [I] worked pretty hard at it, and had a lot of ups and downs throughout the short career I’ve had so far,” he said. Bowden has battled recurring back injuries in 2017 and 2020, and went to the injured list with a shoulder strain on May 16, 2021, “but I worked hard enough and got here.”

Since returning from the IL, Bowden has thrown 3 23 innings over five appearances, allowing four runs, six walks, and just three strikeouts. He acknowledged his struggles, but also mentioned some adjustments that he needs to make in order to improve.

“Obviously, the hitters are a little bit better than the minor leagues,” he noted. “There have been a few times where I’ve caught myself not as aggressive as I should be...I mean, you can look at my numbers that things haven’t been going as well as I’d like and I’ve kind of gotten away from some aggressiveness.”

He also said that he’s been working on “trying to get back to what I do best” during his throwing sessions, specifically “not worry[ing] about the other stuff that’s happened in the past” and moving forward.

Fellow lefty Lucas Gilbreath also made his MLB debut in 2021, but had the extra excitement of debuting for his hometown team. The Westminster native debuted in Phoenix against the Diamondbacks on May 1, but made his second appearance at Coors on May 4. He had a rocky May, allowing eight runs on 11 hits over 8 23 innings. He also allowed three home runs and four walks, but struck out eight. However, he has yet to allow a run in June. The Legacy High School graduate is glad to be pitching in the environment in which he grew up.

“Denver’s always a little different,” Gilbreath said. “Fortunately for me, I grew up here and I’m pretty used to it. But [it’s] just little stuff — the way the ball moves, the way your body recovers. I think the little stuff that most people don’t think about or talk about with the altitude has a big effect on people. Being used to that and living here obviously in the offseason, it’s been good for me and it’s nice to be home.”

All three rookies have veteran relievers such as Daniel Bard, Mychal Givens and Tyler Kinley to solicit advice from, but Gilbreath has the extra help of fellow Colorado native Kyle Freeland in his corner. And they’ve been more than willing to help the young relievers acclimate to the big leagues.

“The biggest piece of advice that I’ve liked is ‘Everything you do bad, I’ve done before and that’s just part of it.’ You’ve just got to take it with a grain of salt and try and learn from it, because it’s a hard game and you’re never gonna be perfect,” Gilbreath said. “But it’s nice to hear from those guys that they’ve been through some of the same things and had some of the same struggles and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And it never goes away, but you learn how to handle those situations and improve.”

Bowden also had glowing things to say about the advice he’s received from the veterans.

“They’re all very approachable,” he said. He then listed things that he’s learned from each guy. From Bard, who served as part of the Diamondbacks’ mental skills department in 2018 and 2019, Bowden has learned about the mental side of the game. Givens has offered his years of expertise in the film room breaking down hitters, and Kinley and Jhoulys Chacín help with in-game management.

“Chacín’s very good with that as well,” Bowden said. “He’s been a starter for a lot of his career, but you’d think he’s been in the bullpen this whole time because he’s like, ‘Hey, be ready for this, this, this.’ He’s like almost predicting the phone calls whenever they come. So it’s really cool. But they’ve all been very, very helpful.”

Of the three active rookies, Justin Lawrence is the only righty. The 26-year-old submariner pitched spectacularly out of the gate — not allowing a run in either of his first two appearances in Arizona — but has also been up-and-down since then. In eight appearances spanning 7 13 innings, Lawrence has allowed five runs on nine hits with four walks and seven strikeouts. Of the active trio, he is the only one who has yet to yield a home run (knock on wood).

However, like the others, Lawrence has been driving up and down I-25 in search of a permanent roster spot. Since his MLB debut on April 29, Lawrence has been optioned and recalled four times. But he is making the most of it and happy to be in a spot to help the team.

“It’s a call to the big leagues,” Lawrence said, “so whether it’s every other day or once a month, knowing that they trust me to come up here and get the job done whenever they need me and whenever they need me, I will be ready and I’ll make sure that I’m ready. So I’m fine with it. If I have to do it four or five times a week for the rest of the season, I’ll do it. As long as I’m that guy that they call on to get the job done, I’ll be ready.”

Lawrence also mentioned that being able to pitch in Albuquerque — a similar environment to Denver — has helped his preparation.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge difference,” he said. “I think that’s kind of the difference some guys have got to be able to make is knowing that it’s the same game. It’s 60 foot, six inches whether you’re in Denver or Albuquerque or Miami or whatever it is. It’s the same game. You’ve got to pitch with that mentality.”

Lawrence continued, “I think it’s good to be able to pitch in places that emulate your home field, so Albuquerque, Reno, El Paso, all those places, they play very similar to Denver.” He also added that he considers himself fortunate to have “the opportunity to work on your game at the Triple-A level and know that it’s going to resemble the same effect here.”

Bowden also found pitching in the altitude of Albuquerque before coming to Denver helpful. In fact, he considered the adjustment from Double-A Hartford to pitching at altitude in Albuquerque to be bigger than going from Triple-A to the majors.

“I would say Albuquerque is a different animal,” he chuckled. “Obviously, you’ve got the altitude, but it’s a smaller ballpark and I’m pretty sure it’s higher than Denver.”

He said that when he arrived in Albuquerque, he was shocked at how much more challenging it was to pitch.

“I wasn’t expecting it all,” he said. He joked about his pride kicking in and thinking, “‘Eh, it’s not going to affect me’” and then getting there and “you give up two broken-bat home runs and you’re like, ‘Oh, Ok. So this is what they’re talking about.’”

Though the hitters in the big leagues are more talented, leaving less room for error, “I would say that I like pitching a little bit better here than in Albuquerque, that’s for sure.”

Despite some of their rookie growing pains, manager Bud Black is confident that the trio will be part of the Rockies’ future.

“For all three it’s been a little bumpy, but that’s not uncommon,” Black said. “Hopefully they can settle in and, like the rest of our guys, string together some appearances of putting up a zero on the scoreboard and helping the team achieve a victory based on a bullpen that does his job. But we all think they’re major-league quality pitchers that in time are going to be very impactful relievers.”

Even though the Rockies have been struggling in 2021, especially in the bullpen, it’s certainly always fun to see players finally realize their dreams of playing Major League Baseball. Hopefully Lawrence, Gilbreath and Bowden can indeed find their footing and become impactful relievers for this team.