Castoffs bolster Rockies bullpen
Vail, CO Colorado
DENVER ” LaTroy Hawkins was searching for the perfect fit last winter, while Matt Herges was looking for any fit at all.
Two journeyman relievers, both foraging for new teams ” anyone willing to take a chance on their right arms. The Rockies took them in, and are awfully glad they did.
Now, they’ve helped take Colorado to its first World Series appearance. Herges and Hawkins have provided a fantastic front end to a brilliant bullpen, combining for 6 2-3 scoreless innings in the Rockies’ unblemished postseason run.
“This is incredible,” Herges said. “I’m hearing from people I haven’t heard from in a long time.”
Eight months ago, Herges thought his baseball career might be over. No one was calling with offers, and he was making plans for another line of work, possibly even in the broadcasting field.
He sat in front of his locker this week, sifting through a goody bag full of trinkets from Nike, the spoils of this surprising success.
“There’s 1,000 shirts in here, and shoes,” the 37-year-old reliever said. “It’s kind of like Christmas.”
Herges has pitched in four of the Rockies’ seven playoff games, giving up just one hit in 3 2-3 innings. He earned the win in the clincher over Arizona in the NL championship series.
Not bad for someone who had to beg the Rockies for an invitation to spring training. He’s still puzzled over why no team wanted to give him a shot. He was coming off a 2006 campaign with Florida in which he was 2-3 with a 4.31 ERA.
“I had an OK year, not great by any means, but not horrible,” Herges said. “I think that should be enough to get a job with somebody and it wasn’t.”
Herges felt like the train with the square wheels on the Island of Misfit Toys in “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the long-running Christmas television special.
That would make Hawkins the cowboy riding the ostrich. They were there on the island along with the squirt gun that squirted jelly, the polka dot elephant and the Charlie-in-the-Box, and nobody likes a Charlie-in-the-box, remember?
“That’s a good analogy. That’s how I felt,” Herges said with a laugh. “I felt like I was on that island and didn’t know why.”
Herges was especially stumped why a guy like Hawkins was there with him.
“He’s been a premier setup guy his whole career. I’m trying to eke by,” Herges said. “He’s on the next level in terms of talent. When he was a free agent, there were 15 to 20 teams calling him. When I was a free agent, no one was calling me.”
Hawkins was coming off a 4.48 ERA in Baltimore, his fourth stop in three seasons.
He diligently did his homework before signing with Colorado last December. He wanted to be on an up-and-coming team that played outstanding defense.
He succeeded on both counts.
In Colorado he pitched in front of a defense like no other he had ever seen ” nobody had, in fact. The Rockies had the highest fielding percentage in major league history this season.
“A lot of people were like, ‘You don’t want to sign there. You sure you want to pitch in that thin air and that altitude?'” Hawkins said. “I told them if I go out there and just be LaTroy Hawkins, it won’t be a problem. I’m always up for a challenge.”
So far in the playoffs, Hawkins has been terrific, throwing three scoreless innings.
“Me and Matt ” we’re alike,” said Hawkins, who has 75 career saves, including 28 in 2001 with Minnesota. “We’ve been given a second chance.”
The fact Herges had to earn his spot in the Rockies bullpen is nothing new. He has taken the difficult road his entire career. He spent eight years in the minors before receiving his major league opportunity with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999.
So he didn’t mind having to prove himself again with the Rockies, who brought him to spring training as a non-roster invitee. He began the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs and was called up on July 3, then went 5-1 with a 2.96 ERA with the Rockies this season.
Herges closed out the regular season with nine scoreless innings, spanning five games, cementing his role as the Rockies’ top middle reliever.
“Every year I’ve had to prove myself so I didn’t get released,” he said. “That’s all I know ” when I get an opportunity I try to impress.”
Pitching coach Bob Apodaca was more impressed with Herges’ mental makeup than his physical attributes. Any player who can handle being sent back down to the minors at 37 to prove his worth and responds like Herges did is all right in Apodaca’s book.
“He was down to the wire as far as making the club,” Apodaca said. “There was never any frustration. There was never any panic. He impressed us. He showed character ” willing to go down to come back up. He knew it was succeed or go home again. He was under the gun. He impressed us. He’s been a delight.”
Herges said he’s done nothing different this season. He’s just pitching with confidence.
“When you get the ball in situations where the game is on the line, how can you not have confidence? That tells you that the manager is saying, ‘I believe in you,'” Herges said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted, just to be believed in.”
Just like those misfit toys.