Work on mound merely sliver of Belisle's routine

Work on mound merely sliver of Belisle's routine

Work on mound merely sliver of Belisle's routine
DENVER -- Matt Belisle's performance is so consistent, it's almost taken for granted -- even though the reliever himself takes almost nothing for granted.

Since joining the Rockies in 2009, after bouncing between the Majors and Minors and fighting through injuries with the Reds as a part-time starter from 2003-08, Belisle has established himself as one of the best relievers in Colorado's franchise history. One remarkable aspect of Belisle's performance is his thirst for the science that he believes helps make it all possible.

In their 20th season playing at the highest altitude in the Majors, the Rockies are pushing for innovative ways to stave off the injuries and performance swings that appear to be unique to the atmosphere. Belisle, 32, sets a prime example in tirelessly searching for answers.

You could say it's a job that never ends. In a sense, when the right-hander leaves the mound, his job isn't close to done. The final out begins a process of an individual nutrition intake, exercise based on workload and anticipated workload, therapy involving heat and ice, and rest while using the latest research on the subject -- all undertaken systematically -- that demonstrates a scientific approach to achieving quality and consistency.

"You're just constantly trying to find ways to improve," Belisle said. "It's not just physically, but mentally. The work-recovery cycle is imperative to my job."

The work-recovery issue highlights an underrated challenge for a baseball player, particularly a relief pitcher. No other sport plays as many games, has such a mix of night and day games, and forces players to perform immediately after arriving in another time zone.

Now, add in the varying length of the games themselves. Then, consider that a relief pitcher never knows exactly when he will enter, or even if he will be called upon. A key factor in a healthy lifestyle and exercise program -- consistency -- is a struggle to achieve.

"These guys start getting ready early in the day, long before their time," said Rockies strength and conditioning coach Brian Jordan. "He's a guy that had two [torn] ACLs and back surgery. He's had previous injuries that he's done a very good job of taking care of and has developed over the years ways of managing those things."

Belisle also goes through a special set of pregame exercises to loosen his arm and fight off forearm tightness -- a problem earlier in his career. Belisle credited the research of Colorado head athletic trainer Keith Dugger, who learned Belisle's muscular needs so thoroughly that he could give him a specific program.

The interest in the science of physical performance is partly because it's necessary for his job, but Belisle also credits his upbringing.

"My uncle, who is an orthopedic surgeon, has always been pretty keen on taking care of himself. He's well-read on what to put into his body," Belisle said. "My sister went to a culinary academy for about six months or so, for a crash course to become certified in health food and cooking. She's always leaned toward natural foods, organics, non-processed foods. They've helped infiltrate the idea that you are what you eat."

Now, however, is the time to offer a disclaimer.

This will not be one of those stories giving full credit to science. Enough stories are written during Spring Training about how a player's offseason workout regimen, or his scale reading, is going to make him a much better player. Belisle keeps his fastball down and is constantly improving his breaking pitches. He doesn't lose sight of that.

"All this stuff sounds great -- theoretically a program that can be conducive to success," Belisle said. "But the only thing that matters is on the field, feeling good and getting outs. You can be extremely overweight and unhealthy, and if you're getting outs, it's all good. When beer used to be in the clubhouse, I probably would have been sitting here, having a beer, talking baseball.

"That's very important. There's no magic to this stuff. This is just for an overall healthier lifestyle, to feel better going to the ballpark, to feel better going to bed."

Belisle's bounce-back ability is unmatched in Rockies history. Nine times in club history, a reliever has been used at least 76 times in a season. Most of the time, that pitcher was significantly less effective the next year.

Belisle was used 76 times in 2010, for a whopping 92 innings, and managed a sparkling 2.93 ERA. Last season, Belisle appeared 74 times and posted a 3.25 ERA. The 0.32 inflation in ERA was easily the lowest for any pitcher who appeared in at least 76 games the previous year. The next-lowest inflation belonged to Mike Myers, whose ERA went up by 1.60 from 2000-01.

This year, Belisle has pitched in 65 games -- with a month's workload ahead of him. Yet his 3.21 ERA is slightly below that of last season.

Belisle ranks 10th in club history with 239 appearances and could surpass Bruce Ruffin (246) for ninth place by season's end. Of the top 10, Belisle's roughly three full seasons are the fewest. If he stays healthy and appears in 70 games, he could be as high as fourth on the list.

"He's a championship-caliber performer," manager Jim Tracy said. "That's what he is. He's always there. He's never not going to take the ball. He actually is never not going to say to you, 'I can pitch today.' He's always going to say that to you."

The moments after Belisle leaves the mound are critical.

The first priority is nutrition. Years of experimentation -- and a heavy dose of research from Jordan -- have led Belisle to conclude that a mixture of proteins and carbohydrates replenishes his energy and could fight off inflammation. This must be downed 30-45 minutes after he leaves the mound.

It would be nice for Belisle to be able to write a best-seller -- "How to Eat Your Way to Successful Relief Pitching." That won't happen, however.

"My needs change, but it's usually a good amount of protein, mixed with carbs -- more protein than carbs, but everybody is different," Belisle said. "Some people can't hold something down 30 minutes after competition."

Exercise is the most flexible part of the routine. Pitchers often exercise the small muscles in the shoulder and arm, but overdoing it or doing it when it's not necessary is a recipe for injury.

"Any physical exertion in the form of exercise I do after I pitch is going to weigh heavily on the output I had -- the previous day, that day and what's foreseeable for the next day," Belisle said. "B.J. [Jordan] and 'Doogie' [Dugger] have been outstanding in helping me learn that equilibrium."

After a heat and ice treatment that is common among pitchers, but tailored to Belisle, sleep is the most underrated part of his regimen.

Belisle has become an early devotee to Jordan's idea of using the sauna as an aid for proper sleep and rest. It's something the Rockies have spent considerable time this year researching, figuring that inconsistent sleep has been a factor in a high injury rate -- not only for pitchers, but position players.

"The sauna is an idea that [Jordan] learned, and we're trying as of now to help lower your core body temperature at night, which helps produce melatonin, which is a natural product that helps you fall asleep," Belisle said. "It's just a routine, something to help wind down."

Given his recovery plan, it could be said Belisle eats, and now sleeps, baseball.

He wants to keep doing it for a long time.

"I feel if I'm preparing myself off the field, mentally, physically, that's nutrition, also," Belisle said. "This is a quick dance in the big ball of life, the big dance."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.