TUCSON, Ariz. – At the age of 26, when most baseball players are just touching on their prime, Colorado Rockies left-hander Jorge De La Rosa had reached a make-or-break point in his career. The potential that scouts could see kept earning him another opportunity but the results weren't pretty.
Two years later, however, De La Rosa has blossomed -- or at least the Rockies hope he has.
After stumbling through the first two months of last season, he became the first pitcher since 1900 to rebound from an 0-6 start to a season to win 16 games. The emotional meltdowns that had pockmarked his career were minimized.
"The physical ability has always been there,'' said Bob McClure, the Kansas City pitching coach who worked with De La Rosa when he was with the Royals in 2006-07. "To see him dominate hitters is not a surprise. You kept waiting for him to believe in himself as much as you believed in him.''
And it happened in 2009, his four-month surge playing a key part in the Rockies rallying to win the NL wild card, featuring a rotation in which five starters each had at least 10 wins. And it was that extended success that has the Rockies feeling that De La Rosa will be a key part of the team being even better in 2010.
There, however, remains a segment of skeptics, who were teased for too long, only to be disappointed at how De La Rosa would unwind in the past if he felt an umpire squeezed him on a pitch call or if a fielder made an error or if he hung a breaking pitch that was sent out of the ballpark.
"De La Rosa has to be aware of his self-control,'' said Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca. "The window for not controlling his emotions has gotten smaller and smaller. What we saw from his last year is what other organizations were looking for but couldn't find. I think he got tired of wasting his ability.''
And there were plenty of other organizations. Signed by Arizona out of his native Mexico weeks before he turned 17, by his 26th birthday he had been sold to Monterrey in the Mexican League, which in turn sold him to Boston, which then traded him back to Arizona, which dealt him to Milwaukee, which sent him to Kansas City, which eventually sold him to the Rockies in April of 2008.
"He can't be satisfied though,'' Apodaca said. "He can't allow himself to backslide. He is like an alcoholic, who can stop drinking for years and years, but he's still an alcoholic. People who knew him back then are always wondering.''
The folks who know him now in Colorado are, however, convinced that the De La Rosa of the final four months of the 2009 season is for real, and the indications in the early spring have reinforced the confidence. He allowed one earned run in nine innings of his first three starts, but even more impressive has been how sharp he has been in bullpen sessions.
"Last spring, when he had his bullpen sessions, the ball was everywhere,'' said Rockies manager Jim Tracy. "This year, from day one, he has been hitting his spots. ... He looks like he did at the midway point last year.''
It is, said De La Rosa, because he feels like he did at the midway point last year.
"I have more confidence,'' said De La Rosa. "I know what I can do. ... This is the first team I feel comfortable with. I think it's going to be a good season.''
That's not just a good season for De La Rosa, but a good season for the Rockies organization, and in large part that is due to the rotation, which was the best in franchise history last year and is expected to be even better this year.
It is what sets the Rockies apart from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the traditional favorite in the division but a team that has so many question marks in its rotation that its hopes will hinge on a major step forward from the talented Clayton Kershaw and a resurgence from Chad Billingsley after his late-season fade in 2009 cost him a chance to start in the postseason.
The only one missing from the Rockies' Big 5 of 2009 is Jason Marquis, who signed a free-agent contract with Washington. The new face, however, is an old one -- Jeff Francis, who in 2007 equaled the franchise single-season victory record of 17 but after battling shoulder problems in 2008 missed last season recovering from surgery.
Then there is De La Rosa.
And there is Ubaldo Jimenez, who will start on Opening Day, and can dominate hitters with a pitch selection built off a fastball that will still be running radar guns to 97, 98 miles per hour in the eighth or ninth innings.
And there is Aaron Cook, the old man of the staff who refined his eating habits in the offseason, lost 25 pounds and is confident that the new body will help him avoid the nagging injuries that have cut short his recent seasons.
And there is Jason Hammel, acquired from Tampa Bay on the final day of spring last year, made his Rockies debut in the bullpen and then stepped into the rotation, maturing as the season went along.
And there is insurance with lefty Greg Smith, back from a season disrupted by ailments and illness, and veteran right-hander Tim Redding plus a quartet of legit prospects who figure to open the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs -- Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers, Greg Reynolds, Samuel Deduno and Chaz Roe.
"When you look at the rotation from number one to number five, there is as little drop-off as any rotation I can think of,'' said Apodaca. ``We have five guys who give us a reason to feel we can win every time they pitch.''