WASHINGTON -- Suitable offers weren't coming, but Roy Oswalt found the old pop on his fastball while throwing to junior college baseball players in Mississippi. After finally signing with the Rockies in May, the pitches grew in effectiveness each time he faced Minor Leaguers.
So Oswalt was ready to put a rough 2012 with the Rangers behind him and rediscover his All-Star form at age 35. And during a five-start tune-up at Double-A Tulsa, while enduring the long bus rides that he left behind long ago, Oswalt reacquainted himself with something else -- his smile.
"It was a lot of fun," Oswalt said. "You get around 22-, 23-year-old kids, you rejuvenate yourself because they've never experienced this up here. That's the baseball they know. I wanted to be part of the team, get on the bus, ride around, play cards. I actually played Wiffle ball in the backyard one day with the guys. That's the first time I played Wiffle ball since summer league, back when I was 15 or 16 years old."
Oswalt discovered he could be a kid again, all while preparing to be 'The Man' for the Rockies' pitching rotation.
Oswalt struck out 11 in five innings but also was rusty enough to give up four runs in his Rockies debut, a 5-1 loss at Washington on Thursday night. He hopes his secondary pitches are as sharp as his fastball -- which consistently hit 94 mph with movement against the Nationals -- when he starts again, Wednesday night in Boston.
Six top-six finishes in Cy Young Award voting, three All-Star Game appearances and high status with playoff teams and contenders while with the Astros (2001-10) and the Phillies (2010-11) carries much weight for a Rockies rotation that has quietly populated itself with talented starters who want to be known for something more than struggling while pitching in a difficult park.
"I don't think we really care what everybody says. There was no doubt in this room from the start of Spring Training," right-hander Tyler Chatwood said. "To get a guy like that, he was a No. 1 for a lot of years, we can learn from him. He can help us win a lot of games. He's still got great stuff as you saw the other night. It's exciting to have that guy on our team now, the leader we can all look to."
It may be a case of Oswalt being an affirmation. He said the Rockies, with a strong offensive lineup, already have a contending club.
"The biggest thing for this team is to believe they're going to win it. It doesn't matter what people think or what the outside expectation is," said Oswalt, who is being paid based on a pro-rated salary of $2.3 million, with a $400,000 roster bonus and incentives based on the number of starts maxing at $1.35 million and innings pitched maxing at $1.25 million.
Even after last year, Oswalt's self-confidence is intact.
As was the case this year, he waited for offers as the season began, joining the Rangers' rotation June 22 and gave up one run and nine hits in 6 2/3 innings of a 9-1 victory over the Rockies. His first six starts were eventful. Three times he gave up one run, the other three he yielded five or more and endured nine or more hits four times.
After giving up 11 hits and eight runs to the Angels on July 30, the Rangers removed him from the rotation. Oswalt said the move violated an agreement to start, which he said he had recorded when he signed. His relationship with Rangers general manager Jon Daniels turned contentious.
"I was actually told by the manager that the front office wanted to put me in the bullpen," Oswalt said. "For three or four days I really hadn't gotten [any] explanation or anything. Finally, I actually had to call him and met him to get an explanation of why I was in the bullpen. He said it was because I had given up to many hits. That was the explanation."
Daniels saw it as Oswalt not making the most of the chance to start. Oswalt would be in and out of the rotation the rest of the year, finishing with a 4-3 record and a 5.80 ERA in 17 games that included nine starts. A couple of bouts with pain, elbow and lower back, didn't make the situation easier.
"He signed here to start and he got that opportunity," Daniels said. "It wasn't working out for us. We were in a pennant race and made the decision to start someone else. Nothing personal, just a performance-based decision. Everyone in our organization was on board with it at the time. "
Chalking up the time with the Rangers as "a bad fit all the way around," Oswalt said he and Rockies senior vice president of Major League operations Bill Geivett have had open communication. Although he has been trusted many times to go between 115 to 126 pitches, he is on board with the Rockies' adherence to a limit of around 100.
"If you manage your pitches well, throw strikes, pound the strike zone and change speeds, you should be able to get into the seventh inning a bunch with 100 pitches," Oswalt said.
It's important not only for Oswalt to buy in, but to demonstrate how it's done. Right-handers Jhoulys Chacin (6-3, 3.92 ERA) and Chatwood (4-2, 2.22), and lefty Jorge De La Rosa (8-4, 3.19) are demonstrating the necessary economy. It's been an issue for righty Juan Nicasio (4-3, 4.78), who is still trying to make it past six innings.
"[Oswalt] throws strikes and he understands how to manage a lineup, one through nine, through three at-bats," Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright said.
Oswalt said he is considering coaching when his career is done. In addition to being one with the youngsters in Tulsa, he, at the request of Drillers pitching coach Darryl Scott, monitored bullpen sessions. He talked to pitchers about developing confidence in their pitchers so that they could step outside of conventional pitching plans -- something necessary to be dominant.
A guy with knowledge, surrounded by pitchers ready to learn, could help the Rockies' Major League staff move forward.
"One thing we knew about him was Roy's a baseball guy," Geivett said. "At this stage of his career, he's looking to pass on some things, whether it was [Roger] Clemens or other guys [he counts Andy Pettitte and Roy Halladay as influences], that were passed on to him."
Despite the struggles of the two previous Rockies' veterans, Jon Garland, who has been released, and Jeff Francis, trying to regain his form at Triple-A Colorado Springs, the Rockies' pitching has been competitive. Geivett points to a 3.91 road ERA that ranks ninth among the Majors' 30 teams. The starters' road ERA is exactly the same, ranking 11th.
To truly help, Oswalt also will have to hold up at Coors Field. He will arrive 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA in five regular-season starts as a visitor and without fear.
"In Houston, the ball flew out of the park," Oswalt said. "In left field, I've seen broken-bat hits go out of there left and right. Guys pop the ball up, throw the bat down and it goes out of the park. Philadelphia the same way. I remember taking batting practice there as a pitcher. You start hitting to dead center and the ball goes out, you're like, 'Oh, my.' Texas, it flew out, especially out of right-center.
"All my career, I've pitched in hitter-friendly parks. I haven't had Pittsburgh, San Francisco and San Diego. Everywhere I've pitched, the ball flew out. If you make quality pitches, you're going to get outs."
When he speaks, he smiles, hoping he can pitch like a kid again.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. T.R. Sullivan contributed.