Ortiz, Backe sharing long-relief role
Former starters adjusting to new jobs in bullpen
PITTSBURGH -- Starting pitching: Every team's seemingly always looking for it, but what happens when a team has too many starters?It's the proverbial good problem to have, but it can, in fact, be a problem. The Astros face such a scenario, what with having their current five-man rotation plus veterans Russ Ortiz and Brandon Backe, each of whom has extensive starting experience in the Major Leagues. Ortiz has made four starts for Houston this season, but he has generally pitched out of the bullpen. Backe hasn't pitched yet this season, but he was reinstated from the disabled list on Thursday after healing from a strained left intercostal muscle. "We've got two long guys," manager Cecil Cooper said, referring to the fact that both Ortiz and Backe will be long relievers. Ortiz was used exclusively as a starter from 1998-2005, but he did pitch out of the bullpen extensively in 2006-07 before missing the entire '08 season after undergoing right elbow surgery. But Backe hasn't made a relief appearance since June 1, 2004. "It's not difficult, it's just different," Backe said. "Us as baseball players, 85 percent of us, we're not necessarily superstitious, but we always get into a routine. And to change the routine, in baseball terms, it's like throwing yourself a curveball. It's a little different. But not something you can't adjust to." The hardest part for Backe is that it's not known when he will pitch -- and it's not likely he will pitch too often. Not only does the definition of "long man" dictate that he pitches only when a starter is knocked out early (barring a lengthy rain delay, extra-inning game or ejection and so forth), the fact that the Astros now have two men filling that role means that opportunities to pitch will be even scarcer. "Being a long guy, you don't pitch too much -- maybe every eight to 10 days -- and we've got two long guys, so we're basically splitting that role up even more," Backe said. Ortiz said that the adjustment to tackling one of baseball's unsung roles "is more mental than physical." Cooper would like to get Backe into a game soon so as to make the transition a smoother one, but ironically, all parties involved (including Backe) hope that the situation never arises, as that would likely mean the team's starters are pitching well and that the team is in a good position to win. "You need to get him in as soon as you can get him in," Cooper said of Backe. "But there will be no, 'He hasn't pitched in four days, so we've got to get him in.' No. We do need to get him in the game ... but we're not just going to say, 'We've got to get him in right here.' If the situation calls for it, we'll get him in there."
Chris Adamski is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.