In camp with Rox as coach, Astacio thrilled to help
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is never a shortage of wide eyes in early spring as a handful of young prospects get their first taste of a big league clubhouse. But in the Rockies' clubhouse this spring, the most awestruck man in uniform may have been a 44-year old veteran of 15 big league seasons.
"It's my first time back in uniform," said Pedro Astacio, the former ace who wrote his name all over the Rockies record books from 1997 through 2001. "To be here in the big leagues, I'm very happy and excited. I feel like I'm dreaming right now to be in the big league clubhouse, watching big league games in the dugout. It's unbelievable. Awesome."
Astacio returned to baseball as a Spring Training assistant coach this year for the first time since pitching his final game in 2006. He broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers in 1992 and was traded to the Rockies in 1997, moving on four years later to finish his career with six other teams, but the Rockies left their mark on the right-handed fireballer.
"I have the Rockies here," Astacio said, indicating his heart. "I remember someone saying, 'When you're done, remember, you're a Colorado Rockie.' They brought me back here, and I really appreciated that."
The Dominican Republic native said he's "going to help the young guys with the experience I have," and there are few pitchers better positioned to pass along the secrets to success when climbing the mound in purple pinstripes. Astacio averaged 12 wins a year throughout his career, peaking at 17 with the Rockies in 1999 en route to 53 wins for the franchise.
He got there with a low 90s fastball, an aggressive attitude, and an experienced savvy that brought credibility to a much maligned pitching staff in the club's early years. He still holds the Rockies record for most complete games, both career (14) and in a single season (7 in 1999); for most single-season innings (232 in '99); and he is second in career strikeouts (749).
"Everybody heard a lot about [pitchers with] cold feet to pitch in [Coors Field]," Astacio said. "I didn't put doubts in my mind. Just get the ball, go on the mound, make some good pitches and see what happens. You can't control everything that happens in the game. Every time I went out there, I tried to keep them in the game, give them a chance to win the game."
Astacio's 17 wins in 1999 tied the club record set by Kevin Ritz in '96, later equaled by Jeff Francis in 2007 and eclipsed by Ubaldo Jimenez's 19 wins in '10. After fielding an Opening Day rotation that ended up with a combined 12 wins in 2012, the Rockies are hungry for a taste of Astacio's winning attitude.
"He was a battler, gritty" said Todd Helton, the only active player still on the roster from Astacio's time. "He wouldn't back down. He could give up three runs early, and you'd never know it. He'd be out there battling until we got him back in the game. He had a lot of good wins that way."
To some extent, the Rockies have moved away from the Astacio model, with an emphasis on ground-ball pitchers who can pitch efficiently without pushing their pitch counts. Astacio also holds the record for most pitches in a single game, having thrown 153 against the Brewers in 1999.
"He's got a lot of great knowledge," said Drew Pomeranz, who went 2-9 with a 4.93 ERA in 22 starts during his rookie campaign in 2012. "I'd be an idiot not to listen to everything he has to say. From what I hear, the way he pitched was aggressive and he'd go right after you. That's kind of how I am."
Astacio doesn't see much difference between his approach to pitching and the approach the Rockies are preaching to the next generation, and he's eager to pass on what he can to help out the organization that showed their faith in him at a critical point in his career.
"It's the same game -- go out and pitch your game and try to do your best," Astacio said. "I never looked at myself as a power pitcher. I threw 91, 92, sometimes 93, 94. Mostly 89, 90. I got ground balls, and I struck out a lot of guys. I tried to make some good pitches."
It's the strikeouts that fans -- and the record books -- remember. And his competitive nature was second to none. Astacio was not afraid to show his emotion, and he didn't shy away from confrontation, standing up for his teammates and himself.
"I remember him pitching a lot of good solid games for us," Helton said. "I remember him getting hit by Jeff Juden and raising the bat, running after Jeff Juden."
Juden was 6-foot-7 and weighed 245 pounds.
Ejections and suspensions cost him some innings, and perhaps a smattering of additional complete games, but Astacio wore the purple pinstripes with pride, and it's a testament to how he remembers his time as a Rockies pitcher that from the eight teams he played for, this is the one he came home to.
"It's awesome to be around these guys," Astacio said, entertaining the idea of potentially coaching on a regular basis someday after seven years of relaxing and enjoying time with his family. "I love baseball. It seems like the things you know, teach it to the young guys and try to help them out to be able to play in the big leagues."