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Rockies' Bowden delivering big-time relief

Colorado's No. 16 prospect finding routine during career season
Ben Bowden has dominated with 43 strikeouts and a .094 batting average against this season. (Kevin Pataky/
June 27, 2019

Both in college and as a professional, Ben Bowden has always thrived in the unpredictability of pitching in relief. There's a chance you can come in at a moment's notice when the bullpen phone rings, forced into action with just a few warmup pitches on the practice mound. With the

Both in college and as a professional, Ben Bowden has always thrived in the unpredictability of pitching in relief. There's a chance you can come in at a moment's notice when the bullpen phone rings, forced into action with just a few warmup pitches on the practice mound. With the role comes a swing of emotions, which, as the left-hander admits, is something that he's worked on overcoming since his Vanderbilt days. 
But this year, when his Double-A Hartford club had a few injuries on its staff, they had a bit of their own unpredictable situation in the ninth inning. They needed someone to close games.
Bowden, who was a closer his junior year, only had four save opportunities in his Minor League career coming into 2019. Still, when the Yard Goats needed somebody to take ownership of the last three outs earlier this year, he was ready to be the guy. 

"I was kind of thrust into the role in Double-A because we had a couple of injuries and things like that," Bowden said. "I was just kind of thrown into it in about the fourth game of the season. And I feel like I thrive in those adrenaline-filled situations, and I let it be known to the coaching staff and they stuck with me. It ended up working out well." 
"Well" might be an understatement from the No. 16 Rockies prospect, who recorded 20 saves in as many opportunities while in the closer's role with the Yard Goats. On its face, the 20-for-20 is an impressive feat itself. But Bowden, who was promoted to Triple-A Albuquerque on June 20, was more than just getting three outs in the ninth inning. He was finishing games with almost total dominance. 
This year, with his three-pitch repertoire, Bowden has developed into one of the best pitchers in the Minor Leagues. Among 1,635 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched this season, he rises to the top in a number of categories.
Through Tuesday, he ranked seventh with a 43.4 strikeout percentage, seventh with a 35.4 strikeout-to-walk percentage, eighth with a .110 batting average against and eighth with in WHIP with a minuscule 0.65. And he's only allowed two extra-base hits (both homers).
"Part of who Ben is innately has probably shown more than ever this season," Rockies director of player development Zach Wilson said. "He's a tremendous competitor. He's extremely aggressive. And he challenges anyone in the batter's box. He doesn't care who they are. So you combine that with him being 100 percent healthy, you put that all together and it equates to what people are seeing out there."
From the moment camp broke, Hartford pitching coach Steve Merriman noticed Bowden's focus. With a sharp routine mixing in with good conditioning, lively pitches and some strong repeatability, the reliever has made it all come together this season.
"To pitch in that role, you have to know how to channel that adrenaline," Merriman said. "You have to know how to channel that energy correctly. That went back to some of our earlier conversations in Spring Training and certainly the beginning of the year. ... He's really good at it at this point. Doesn't mean he always going to be perfect, but it's certainly something he's aware of and makes it a part of his routine."

This incredible success comes after Bowden held a 3.98 ERA between Class A Asheville and Class A Advanced Lancaster last year. One factor has been the tightening of his slider to go along with his mid-90s fastball and solid changeup. But according to Bowden, maybe the biggest difference this year has been finding some consistency in a job that is unpredictable. 
"I've developed a pretty strict routine, on my own," he said. "I had a pretty good idea of when I was going to be throwing in those games, so I was able to develop a routine after about four or five times closing.
"It's not trying to do too much. The way I've been this year, it's just taking a step back and realizing a lot times hitters will get themselves out. I don't have to do too much other than what I'm capable of and not try to reach back and not try to blow somebody away. Just try to make my pitches -- that's been working for me so far."
This routine and mentality didn't develop overnight. It's taken some time -- and adversity -- to get to where he is now. In 2017, just one year after he was selected by the Rockies in the second round, he wasn't even on the mound at all. Due to three different injuries, which included hamstring and back strains, Bowden missed what would have been his first full professional campaign. While remaining in the vicinity of the club's facility in Arizona, he stared down some self-doubt. 
"There were times where -- I'm not going to lie -- I was very frustrated," Bowden said. "It really gets you thinking when you miss an entire year, because you never really know how your body's going to bounce back. I've seen guys work extremely hard and doing everything that they can and their bodies don't let them get back. That's always the thought in the back of your head when you're hurt for an entire season, especially with three different injuries in three different parts of your body."

After what felt like an eternity, Bowden returned to the South Atlantic League to begin 2018. It was the same place he'd started his pro career two years before, but just being back on the mound after missing a full season was a win. By midseason, he'd earned a promotion to the California League, where his home park was the hitters' haven in Lancaster.
His strikeout total remained high (53 in 36 2/3 innings) there, but his WHIP stayed higher than he'd like at 1.36 and his ERA climbed to 4.17. For a developing pitcher jumping into the Cal League, bloated numbers aren't anything out of the ordinary. But Bowden admits that he was also forcing things, trying too hard to make up for lost time.
"I feel like I got in a spot last year where after my 2017 season where I didn't pitch at all," he said, "I felt like I had stuff to prove, and there were times where I was overthrowing and walking guys." 
Having that realization after the season, Bowden came into this year's Spring Training another year removed from 2017 and closer toward his ultimate goal. He reported to big league camp and logged a 3.18 ERA with eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings in the Cactus League. More important than the numbers, he got some valuable experience against Major League hitters and spent time with more seasoned bullpen arms. In talking with Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Mike Dunn, he found plenty of wisdom to pocket along the way. 
From those conversations, Bowden learned about how they prepare for games and pitch during them. But, knowing himself pretty well, he decided he'd cherry-pick things that he knew would work for him rather than try to follow one template.
"I was trying to figure out how they operated," he said. "I talked a lot with Mike Dunn about slider development and pitch tunneling. Wade, I talked a lot with him about mentally how he's able to deal with situations that he's been in. We're talking World Series, ALCS, all that stuff. It was really good talking to him and figuring out what's running through his brain when he's on the mound. He basically said it was nothing -- he was in cruise control and he's prepared himself throughout the day. That stuck with me." 
Bowden tends to show some passion and intensity on the mound, so he's always been surprised at how well Davis reacts, or rather doesn't react, in the biggest of moments on. 
"[Davis] basically said he was once a very emotional guy. He had someone take him under his wing and told him that you have to calm that down," Bowden said. "I feel like I pitch with a lot of emotion and that can get the better of me sometimes. Trying to calm down until the very end was a big thing for me this year that I didn't have in the past." 
The balancing act of using adrenaline to fuel him but not go overboard with emotion has led to Bowden's best season to date. With Hartford, Bowden struck out 42 and walked seven while allowing three earned runs over 25 2/3 innings. In only one Double-A outing this season did he allow more than one hit in any inning. But even during that April 17 outing, he still reared back and struck out the side to earn the save. 
His changeup has also been a help. According to Merriman, early this season they analyzed some of the numbers and matched it up with corresponding video, helping Bowden tweak his grip of the pitch. And so far, the results speak for themselves. 
"A lot of what goes into helping a guy get better with a pitch is, what is their intent with that pitch? What are they trying to create?" Merriman said. "And once we looked at it and talked about various options and what he was getting, he decided to create and then we worked on it from that plan. That's when things really started to mesh for him."
Having a third option has made Bowden a tougher force in the late innings. 

"A lot of relievers are two-pitch guys," Wilson said. "For him to have a third pitch, a changeup that is a plus pitch, that he can go to whenever he wants in any type of counts... It doesn't matter if there is a left-hander or right-hander, he'll use it to get ahead, he'll use it as a finish. The fact that he's able to do that with that type of pitch, I think, probably sets him apart."
When he got ahead in the count with the Yard Goats, he was as close to untouchable as you could get. In that situation, he whiffed 25 hitters, didn't walk any and yielded three hits. But if using multiple pitches makes him different from most relievers, it connects him to his road roommate, Rico Garcia -- who was promoted to the Isotopes on the same day as Bowden. Boarding with Garcia has given Bowden a chance to see how the starter prepares for outings. Though their routines aren't the same, thinking about prepping for games in different ways has only helped.
"As a reliever it's a little bit different, because it's up to you when it comes to when you want to get soft tissue work done or when you want to lift heavy, because you're hot every night unless you have an off day," Bowden said. "I had Phil [Bailey] in Hartford, who was my strength coordinator. He was perfect for me. He helped me out. He let me pick and choose when I wanted to do things, when I wanted to back off. I think that really, really helped having my body feel good all the time." 

Although he made five starts with Vanderbilt, Bowden is not a converted "failed starter," but the relatively rare late-game reliever who was drafted as a late-game reliever. 
"I love the whole feel of the bullpen," Bowden said. "I like being down there with the guys. You're kind of playing the game out in your head and figuring out when you're going to pitch, what the line is going to be coming out of the bullpen. I don't really like to know when I'm going to pitch. I overthink things a little too much. [Relieving is] about trusting and letting my adrenaline take over."

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.