Backe focused on working deep
Right-hander's command and confidence getting stronger
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- By the time Brandon Backe eased back into the rotation in 2007, the Astros had a double-digit deficit in the National League Central race and hadn't had a realistic chance of a postseason berth in months.
But that didn't mean Backe's starts weren't important. At the very least, they served as a precursor of what was to come -- or, at the very least, of what the Astros hoped was to come.
Backe was 3-1 in those five starts, posting a 3.77 ERA after allowing a combined 12 earned runs over 28 2/3 innings. Strong numbers weren't required for the rehabbing right-hander, but they certainly didn't hurt as Backe prepared for Spring Training over the offseason.
"Not only getting the innings in, but getting people out, winning, doing well," he said. "It all added up to, 'OK, I'm a normal person now. I'm not Brandon Backe who just got off of elbow [reconstruction] surgery. It's done, and it's OK.'"
As the exhibition season rolls along, Backe is able to push the Tommy John surgery he had in 2006 further back in his memory bank. These days, he sees himself simply as one of a handful of pitchers guaranteed a starting spot, and his focus rests solely on making sure he's ready for his first regular-season start, which could arrive as early as April 1.
The process began last year when he returned to the mound on Sept. 4, just days before the one-year mark since having the Tommy John procedure. He yielded three runs over 5 2/3 innings in a 91-pitch outing, and one week later, he allowed four runs over five frames to the Cubs in a 97-pitch start.
Backe threw six innings in each of his final three starts, holding his opponents to two or fewer runs each time.
"For him, there's peace of mind," manager Cecil Cooper said. "He's a guy that you can pretty much count on to go out there every time and take his regular turn. He was able to do it in September, and it gave us a little taste of what we might see this year. For planning purposes, we feel like we have a guy we can count on."
When a pitcher endures a long layoff, two elements of his game take a while to return: command and confidence. Even without both at full strength last year, Backe still managed to pitch well.
"I can't say it was more physically important than mentally, but it's about 50-50 with both," Backe said. "The arm held up with 60-plus innings last year, if you add the rehab starts and the Major League starts. It felt good. Each start seemed to be better.
"Not being able to do that last year would have [put] that doubt this year in my mind -- 'Well, how good is it going to feel? How well can I do?' I'm sure more doubt would be put into Cecil and [pitching coach] Dewey [Robinson's] minds than mine, but in the back of my mind there would have been some doubt about what I could possibly do this year. Instead, now that I was able to do that, it's a little easier to know what is to be expected of me this year."
Backe could very well be the club's No. 2 starter when camp breaks at the end of the month. Cooper has mentioned several times that he would like to break up Backe and veteran righty Woody Williams, whose pitching style Cooper views as similar to Backe. Assuming Williams remains in the rotation, he would likely slot in as the No. 4, which would probably push Backe to No. 2, with Wandy Rodriguez sliding in between the two as the No. 3.
Backe said he would be "honored" to be the No. 2 starter, adding that rotation slots are not that important to him. He also realizes that a No. 2 needs to not only be effective, but durable -- just as durable as Roy Oswalt, the club's resident workhorse who hasn't thrown fewer than 200 innings in a season since an injury-riddled 2003.
"Thirty starts, 200 innings," Backe said. "Those are the two numbers."
That may be a tall order for the 29-year-old Backe, considering he's never pitched that many innings or made that many starts in a single season. He started a career-high 25 games in 2005 and threw 149 1/3 innings, but since then, injuries have limited him to 43 innings in '06 and 28 2/3 in '07.
Backe doesn't have his sights set on the big picture; he'd rather look at his season from a start-to-start basis. He has one goal -- to pitch deep into every game.
"In my mind, I'm not saying, 'Well, I know they want me to pitch 200 innings, but I just don't know if I can do it,'" he said. "That's not my mindset. The mindset is, I'm going to take every start and try to get into the seventh inning. Give your team a chance to win, whether you're up by one, tied or down by one, get out of there with the team having a chance to win and get into the seventh."
Thanks to the short burst of durability he displayed last year, Backe is certain he's up for the challenge.
"When you're a kid and you go on a roller coaster, you're excited and very anxious, but you're kind of nervous," he said. "When it's all said and done and the ride's over, you can finally exhale and take in what the experience was. It's the same thing every time you [pitch]. Those nerves hit. You want to do so well and you want to be prepared as well as you possibly can. Just having that preparation under my belt last year, it automatically throws the confidence into overdrive, knowing that I'm OK."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.