Bell relishing fresh start as D-backs' interim closer
Veteran reliever bringing new sense of purpose to perfecting mechanics
PHOENIX -- Donning a D-backs uniform in a regular-season game for just the second time, Heath Bell pried open the bullpen door in the left-field corner of Chase Field on April 2 and sprinted to the mound to make his team debut against the Cardinals.
Following a tumultuous season in Miami in which he established career-worst figures in runs allowed and blown saves, to say Bell wanted to make a good first impression on his new club would be an understatement.
What followed, however, Bell later described as a "home run parade."
Pitch one: Pete Kozma blasted a 94-mph fastball over the middle of the plate 440 feet to left-center field.
Pitch nine: Shane Robinson walked on a full count.
Pitch 10: Jon Jay deposited a hanging curveball into the right-field bleachers for a two-run shot.
Pitch 13: Matt Carpenter doubled to right.
Pitch 20: Allen Craig singled on a line drive to left.
By the time D-backs manager Kirk Gibson finally lifted Bell from the game, the right-hander had allowed three runs on four hits, sending him spiraling into a mess of his own thoughts. Feeling like he had fixed the problems that troubled him in 2012, Bell couldn't for the life of him figure out what had just happened.
"I came in and I was like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing wrong,'" he said. "I felt great arm-wise, my velocity was there, there was just something mechanically I was doing wrong, and I had no idea what it was."
Lost and unable to decipher the issue by himself, help arrived the next day. Bell, Gibson, pitching coach Charles Nagy and bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock sat down together, looked at film and eventually pinpointed what was going awry. The problem wasn't at the end of Bell's throwing motion like he thought; instead, it was coming from the beginning.
Bell, whose delivery is already about as rock and fire as it gets, was rushing too much.
"Everybody has to get to a certain point before they throw the ball, and he wasn't getting to that point," Nagy said. "He was just going a little early."
Seems simple, but for Bell, it was like a light flipping on.
"Sometimes you just need some different eyes on it," he said.
Once the issue was identified, Gibson wanted to give Bell a fresh mental approach to the game, so more problems wouldn't resurface down the road.
"He talked about last year a lot, and I didn't want that. I asked him to tell me some good things he remembered," Gibson said. "Your mind, the way it works, you have to watch what you store in there because that's what helps shape your picture of yourself. Sometimes when we imprint too many bad things in our memory, it can turn into a mechanical problem."
Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, Bell said it took him about a week to implement what the coaches saw, and since then, he has been trying to build off it. Now, more than six weeks later, the results still aren't exactly where he'd like them to be, but the improvement is vastly evident. In his 15 2/3 innings following the disastrous first outing, Bell has a 3.06 ERA.
"They've meant the world to me, just having somebody to have your back. It has been great," Bell said of the D-backs' coaches. "I'm starting to feel like my old self back in the day, and the coaches have helped me accomplish that. Sometimes, maybe we're not on the same page, but as long as I explain my thought process, it's OK. We have a dialogue. I like that."
Bell said he had the same type of relationship with his coaches in San Diego, but he missed the give-and-take when he was with the Mets early in his career and Miami in 2012.
"It's just nice to have those guys you can talk to and bounce ideas off of," he said. "Sometimes I have been wrong, especially with Gibby, because he was a great hitter, so he tells me what the hitter is thinking. He brings that perspective. I feel like I've learned a lot that way.
"And as for Nagy, you could go out there, give up three home runs, then come in and he'll say, 'Hey, it's OK' and you're like, 'No, it's not OK.' But he'll just keeping tell you, 'You'll be fine.' He's just so positive."
While Bell likes to displace the praise to everyone but himself, Nagy thinks the real recognition should lie with the pitcher.
"He's worked his butt off, and it's a tribute to him," Nagy said. "His confidence has grown ever since he started to feel well. All of the sudden you find it. You feel good, and now every time he goes out, he can feel if he's off and he can't make adjustments to get back where he needs to be."
With J.J. Putz (elbow) on the disabled list for the foreseeable future, Bell is now filling the closer role for the D-backs after initially being slotted for work in the seventh or eighth innings. In six save opportunities since the move, the right-hander has converted five of them, including two straight on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"It's not hard going back into the closer role, because I've done that the last four years," said Bell, who has 159 career saves. "Unfortunately, J.J. went down, and I'm taking over the spot just until he is healthy. The biggest thing is executing my pitches. If I can do that, I'll do really well."
Even with Bell's struggles this season, Gibson is secure in his belief that the worst times are already behind the veteran.
"It ebbs and flows, so when people question my confidence in him, I just keep my head down and keep moving," Gibson said. "If you look at his year, he's had a couple rocky outings, but besides that, he's been very good. I think he's been throwing the ball well."
Regardless of his eventual successes or failures, one thing is certain for Bell in 2013: he's back to enjoying coming to the ballpark every day, relishing in his fresh start in the desert with a coaching staff and clubhouse that supports him.
"Wherever you work, if you're happy, you're going to work better," he said. "We have guys in the clubhouse that are struggling, but they are still positive and pumping everybody up. It's awesome. Everybody is positive in here and there isn't one selfish player -- everybody wants to win. That's what it's all about."
Bell's next chance to show how much he has changed since last season will come Friday, when the D-backs visit none other than his former team, the Marlins.
Tyler Emerick is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.