Under Dotel's guidance, Rzepczynski flourishes

Under Dotel's guidance, Rzepczynski flourishes

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Over at the Tigers' spring complex in Lakeland, Fla., Octavio Dotel is preparing for another season with his 13th big league club.

He left St. Louis as a free agent this winter, but not before he had secured his first World Series ring and developed a particular fondness for a critter that became marketed as the team's rally squirrel.

He also left behind the potential for another legacy, this one was embodied in lefty Marc Rzepczynski.

Though 12 years separate the two in age, their careers will forever be linked. Representing half of the Cardinals' haul from the Blue Jays last July 27, the relievers naturally gravitated toward each other when they arrived in a new city. Rzepczynski was still trying to find his footing in the Majors, still attempting to make a relief role feel natural. He was also experiencing a new home for the first time in his professional career.

"It was shocking because I definitely thought I was going to be in the Toronto bullpen for a long time," Rzepczynski recalled. "I was a young guy and since they had many years of control on me, I thought I was going to be in the Toronto bullpen forever."

It didn't take long, though, for Rzepczynski to begin counting the blessings. He had escaped the American League East and had landed with a club that had the chance to make a push for the postseason. And he had Dotel to help lead the way.

The youngster in the Blue Jays' bullpen, Rzepczynski had kept mostly quiet early in the year. Using his eyes and ears had been the priority for a lefty, who, before 2011, had almost always started. In St. Louis, though, he sought out his veteran teammate for guidance.

Dotel and Rzepczynski became catch partners during warm-ups, and Dotel shared a deluge of advice about how to handle the mental grind of a 162-game season. Dotel made it one of his tasks to ensure that Rzepczynski fit in.

"It was a huge benefit to have him here," Rzepczynski said. "Anytime I had trouble or if the mental side was getting a little bit off, he would just come to talk with me. Dotel would just grab a ball and throw it no matter what happened. For me, being a first-year reliever, I was trying to get used to that -- if I give up a hit, I have to move on. He showed that."

Rzepczynski is on his own now, but the lessons learned from Dotel and the pressure he experienced in October have him prepared to assume a critical role in the Cardinals' bullpen in 2012. He's one of two left-handed relievers that manager Mike Matheny is expected to have at his disposal, and Rzepczynski shouldn't be limited in use.

He made 71 relief appearances in 2011 and, when given the freedom to pitch full innings, showed that he can be effective enough against right-handers not to be pigeonholed into a left-on-left matchup role. Batters have hit .266 off Rzepczynski in the Majors; lefties own a .205 cumulative mark.

"He's going to be a guy that we can have some flexibility with," Matheny said. "I think his numbers prove that, too."

Rzepczynski made his third appearance of the spring on Tuesday and all have been scoreless. He has faced seven right-handers and allowed just one single and one walk. Lefties are 0-for-3 against Rzepczynski thus far in Grapefruit League competition.

"Because I have a starting background I like going out there to face at least a few hitters instead of just getting one guy out," said Rzepczynski, who was pulled after facing only one batter in nine of his 28 appearances with the Cardinals last year. "I love getting that big out, but at the same time I like pitching against right-handers, too. I know I can get right-handers out. I showed that when I started."

For the first time in his career, Rzepczynski is spending a spring knowing that he belongs in the bullpen. He didn't have that benefit last year, even though Rzepczynski never did end up making a start. The security of a 'pen job has also allowed Rzepczynski to turn his focus to his pitches.

He believes there is improvement to be had with his changeup, and he's regaining a feel for a curveball that Rzepczynski largely abandoned when he became a reliever last year.

The Cardinals have talked about maybe one day moving Rzepczynski back into the rotation. For now, though, Rzepczynski is enjoying clarity, security and a better understanding of what it takes to stick at baseball's highest level.

"Pitching in the playoffs, that was the biggest stage you can pitch on," he said. "Now that I've done that, I know that I can go out and pitch anytime and not worry about the ups and the downs during the season."

Dotel, who preached that mantra regularly to Rzepczynski, should be proud to know it stuck.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.