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Bierbrodt's focus back on the game

Months after shooting, Rays pitcher is bidding for rotation.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Had Nick Bierbrodt seen the gunman's face, life as he knows and lives it now might be completely different.

"I only saw him for maybe a second or two at the most," the Devil Rays pitcher said. "It was a big blur, and that might be a blessing."

Seven months after being shot twice in the chest while riding in the back seat of a Charleston, S.C., taxi -- the bullets remain lodged within his torso -- Bierbrodt thinks little about the June 5 incident that nearly snatched a career and his life.

"If I got shot I'd worry about it more than he did," teammate and close friend Joe Kennedy said. "All he cares about is that he's alive and still pitching."

The physical scars may never vanish, but the ever-optimistic and easygoing Bierbrodt has moved on, with an eye on winning a spot in the Rays rotation this season.

"I totally thought I could be here for spring training," the left-hander, 24, said. "That was my goal, just to be healthy for spring training. If I wasn't, no big deal. It might take a little more time. But that was definitely the goal."

At the time of the shooting, Bierbrodt already was mounting what many considered an impossible return.

The Rays shelved their potential No. 4 starter in March after he experienced a severe loss of control during back-to-back spring training games.

In a display reminiscent of Rick Ankiel and Mark Wohlers, Bierbrodt walked 12 and hit three of 17 batters he faced while throwing five wild pitches.

Then-pitching coach Jackie Brown overhauled Bierbrodt's mechanics before sending him to extended spring training, then to Class A Charleston for the beginning of his rehabilitation.

He started one game, allowing two earned runs on five hits while walking and striking out one over five innings, before the season was ended by the still-unidentified man riding a bicycle.

"(The control problems) were totally gone or else they wouldn't have sent me (to Charleston)," he said."

Rays officials remain optimistic about Bierbrodt's future.

He was the promising return on the 2001 trade of catcher Mike DiFelice and pitcher Albie Lopez to the Diamondbacks. In 11 games with the Rays during the 2001 season, Bierbrodt went 3-4 with a 4.55 ERA, 56 strikeouts and 27 walks.

"It's great just to have him healthy and alive on the baseball field, because it could've been a very tragic situation," general manager Chuck LaMar said.

"To see him in great shape physically, he looks great. ... There's a break that we need to catch. If he's able to throw strikes and if he's completely recovered from his injuries it would be a real (boost) to pencil his name in with the likes of a Joe Kennedy, (Dewon) Brazelton and the other young guys. That's the kind of staff you want to have in the situation we're in."

Without a lengthy career to fall back on -- he has pitched in only 16 major-league games -- Bierbrodt must re-prove himself to the organization and a new coaching staff.

"Personally I have high expectations for Nick and I think he has the same for himself," pitching coach Chris Bosio said. "Nick is a guy that is going to have to really, just like everybody else, have a clean camp and a clean bill of health to really have a (chance)."

Just making it to the start of camp isn't good enough.

The comeback continues later this week when, for the first time since the shooting, Bierbrodt will step atop a pitching mound and throw to batters.

It's only batting practice, but it's another accomplishment.

"Throwing off the mound in a game is going to be the No. 1 best feeling for me from a standpoint of getting back to competing," he said. "Even just facing a batter in batting practice that's going to be exciting for me. I haven't had anything going competitively for me. Playing golf was the only thing I could do to compete against anybody."

Unsure whether the events of the past year have made him wiser ("That could just be with age."), Bierbrodt has changed much when it comes to pitching.

But personally?

"I haven't changed anything in any way," he said. "Well, I do roll up my window when I go through a drive-through now."

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