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Rusin embracing versatile role in 'pen

Rockies left-hander happy to be used in any situation he's needed
MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies left-handed relief pitcher Chris Rusin's other love is basketball. He still takes jump shots to spice up his fitness routine. But on the court back at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Mich., he showed his versatility.

"I was a little of this, a little of that; I liked to slash and shoot," Rusin said.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies left-handed relief pitcher Chris Rusin's other love is basketball. He still takes jump shots to spice up his fitness routine. But on the court back at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Mich., he showed his versatility.

"I was a little of this, a little of that; I liked to slash and shoot," Rusin said.

Now, Rusin has slashed his way to a nice baseball career as a long/middle/sometimes-late reliever. Last season was Rusin's best so far. His 85 innings pitched were the most in the National League and second-most in the Majors for a relief pitcher, and the results were excellent: a 5-1 record, and a 2.65 ERA. These efforts helped Rusin establish his place among the most successful practitioners of the burgeoning trend of versatility.

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In 2017, Rusin pitched two or more innings in 17 of his 60 appearances, and five times threw three or more innings. He had two saves, including a nine-out one.

Rusin finished the year fittingly. In the eventual 11-8 loss to the D-backs in the NL Wild Card Game, Rusin entered the topsy-turvy contest and threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings as the Rockies were mounting a comeback.

Video: NL WC: Rusin escapes a tight spot in the 4th inning

"It kept me on my toes," Rusin said. "I was always ready to come in in any situation. Even when I wasn't ready, I was able to get ready quick and get in and be able to do that. I was fortunate enough to be ready in all those situations."

The Rockies claimed Rusin off waivers from the Cubs at the end of 2014, and the following year he went 6-10 with a 5.33 ERA while starting 22 of his 24 appearances. Inflammation in his left middle finger during the spring of 2016 ended his chances of breaking camp in the rotation, but by going 3-5 with a 3.74 ERA while starting just seven of 29 regular-season games, Rusin established his versatility.

Last year, Rusin was competing for the rotation but suffered an oblique injury in spring, and when he came back he excelled as a reliever. Although Rusin said he is preparing like he has in the past -- with a starter's mentality -- he accepts that the Rockies are looking at him as a reliever.

The idea of a pitcher who can float to wherever the team needs him received heightened awareness in the 2016 playoffs. The Cubs and Dodgers floated their closers -- Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, respectively. The Indians used lefty Andrew Miller accordingly.

Now there are enough of these pitchers to form a veritable Swiss Army to knife through opposing lineups. Last year several of them -- from Rusin to the D-backs' Archie Bradley, to the Astros' Chris Devenski, to the Yankees' Chad Green -- helped their teams to the postseason.

Playoff exposure and the increased use of an eight-man relief staff -- something the Rockies, who play in a hitter-friendly environment, did long before it became a dance craze -- led to an emphasis on finding a pitcher who can pitch when important situations occur before the ninth inning.

Often, analytical minds wonder why teams don't use a traditional closer at tough parts of games. The problem with that is if the game flips, a team could find itself depending on a less-trusted pitcher in a tight final inning. The eight-man bullpen gives teams the chance to find such a pitcher and not have to burn the closer.

But Rockies manager Bud Black noted that it's not easy to find such a pitcher -- which makes guys like Rusin all the more appreciated.

"They are few and far between," Black said. "When you have one, it's really, really nice. What makes it special is that [Rusin] has the ability to do it -- pitch multiple innings, have length in his game, but also has the capability to come in and have the focus to get one hitter out in the specialty role of left-on-left, and be resilient enough to be available often.

"Probably most importantly, he's in on that role. 'Whatever it takes, I'm fine.'"

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.

Colorado Rockies, Chris Rusin