Fuentes put team first in setup role
Former closer overcame injuries and continues to contribute
PHOENIX -- When it came time for National League players and managers to cast their ballots for this year's All-Star team, it wasn't difficult for them to include Brian Fuentes' name. For the first 2 1/2 months of this season, he'd simply provided the same kind of dominance that had earned him trips to the Midsummer Classic in each of the previous two seasons.
By the time these ballots were tallied, Fuentes was unable to enjoy the fact that he'd been selected to a third consecutive All-Star Game. Instead, he was burdened with the reality that he was headed for a trip to the disabled list that would ultimately cost him his job as the Rockies closer.
Now, as the Rockies prepare to face the Diamondbacks in their first trip to the National League Championship Series, Fuentes finds himself a valuable member of the bullpen. No longer the closer, he's now the effective setup man, who has displayed a sense of unselfishness that has gained him further respect amongst his teammates.
"His attitude has been great about it," said LaTroy Hawkins, another former closer who has proved effective as a middle reliever with the Rockies. "He's talked about it probably zero times. The media has made a bigger stink about it than he has. That lets you know what kind of person that he is."
After collecting saves in two of the three wins in June's sweep of the Yankees at Coors Field, Fuentes was simply continuing a successful streak that had started during April's second week. But during his next five appearances, he blew four save opportunities, allowed 13 runs -- 10 earned -- in just 3 2/3 innings, and saw opponents compile a .542 batting average.
Obviously something was wrong, and that was proven when it was learned that he had a mild lat strain on his right side. The ailment sidelined him from July 4-Aug. 14, and when he returned, Manny Corpas had established himself as the team's dependable closer.
Although he'd converted 20 of 22 save opportunities in the 31 appearances that preceded his five-game slide, Fuentes understood the Rockies' decision to stick with Corpas, who converted 19 of 22 save opportunities and posted a club record for relievers with a 2.08 ERA in 78 appearances.
"I do it for my teammates," Fuentes said. "I played with these guys all year. Whining about not closing isn't going to help the situation. You only worry about the things you have control over, and that's not one of the things I had control over."
Since returning, Fuentes has proven just as a dominant in the setup role. In his final 24 regular-season appearances, the 32-year-old right-hander limited opponents to a .159 batting average. In that dominant 31-game stretch that preceded his five-game frustrating stretch, he'd limited opponents to a .157 batting average.
Five forgettable performances and one injury cost Fuentes his role as the closer. But he hasn't lost sight of the ultimate goal of helping the Rockies win their first world championship.
"Manny is our closer right now, and I'm going to help get the ball to him," Fuentes said. "It's not about egos. You've got to check your ego at the door. That's basically what it boils down to."
Utilizing some advice he'd received many years ago from former closer Mike Jackson, Hawkins addressed his fellow Rockies relievers the day before the season began. He told them their success as a unit would be even more important than anything the offense or the starting rotation would provide.
"I told them if we do our job, we can take the team a long way," Hawkins said. "If we don't do our job, it's going to be another rocky season."
When a sore right elbow sidelined Hawkins in May, the Rockies bullpen stayed strong in the same manner that it would when Fuentes was lost for more than a month. The emergence of Corpas was important, and many on the team believe the May acquisition of Jorge Julio provided much-needed stability.
In his first 24 appearances with the Rockies, Julio posted a 2.38 ERA and limited opponents to a .213 batting average. The veteran reliever struggled down the stretch with some soreness in his back and hasn't been included on the roster for either of the first two rounds of the postseason.
"What he did when he got here in the middle part of the summer won't be forgotten by his teammates," Hawkins said.
Nor will the unselfishness shown by Fuentes, who says he'd love to provide Corpas with four save opportunities during this NLCS.
"I don't look at it as [Fuentes] losing his job," Hawkins said. "He was hurt, and we needed somebody to step in. Corpas stepped in and did an unbelievable job."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.