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Bierbrodt earns praise for poise

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The manager was extremely encouraged. The pitching coach offered heaps of praise.

As for Nick Bierbrodt?

He was just happy to be there, throwing batting practice on a back field at the Naimoli complex.

It was during spring training last year that Bierbrodt, a promising young candidate for the rotation, inexplicably lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. His wildness was so severe the Rays had to take him off the mound.

And that, it turned out, wasn't even the worst thing that happened to him. After regaining enough control to pitch in minor-league games, Bierbrodt was shot twice by an unknown assailant while on a rehabilitation assignment in Charleston, S.C.

He has recovered from the injuries and gotten himself into impressive shape, but the true test will come on the mound. Friday was the first time he faced hitters since the incident and, apart from some problems keeping his breaking ball down, the results couldn't have been much better.

"He threw the ball very easy, he threw a lot of strikes, he seemed very comfortable out there," manager Lou Piniella said. "He's got a nice arm, he really does. His ball has got a lot of life at the hitting area.

"I'm sure he's been waiting for that. It's a first step, but it was extremely encouraging. If you watched him, you wouldn't know anything had happened."

Pitching coach Chris Bosio praised Bierbrodt for his stuff and his approach.

"He's got that fire in his eye that I like," Bosio said. "I see him every morning, and I see that with Nick. Whatever he went through last year on and off the field, I think he pushed that aside and he moved on."

Said Bierbrodt: "Before I pitched, I thought I might have been a little more nervous or anxious. I just tried to treat it like a bullpen (session). I really wasn't trying to get anyone out. With what happened last year, I was just trying to show everyone I could throw the ball over the plate.

SHARP-EYED: Newly hired major-league consultant Syd Thrift made his first appearance at camp Friday and got right to work.

One of his projects involves bringing in sports vision specialist Dr. Bill Harrison, who will test the position players and work with them on such things as dynamic visual acuity, depth perception, aiming and tracking accuracy, eye muscle training and eye-hand-body control and coordination.

MAKING IMPRESSIONS: In addition to Bierbrodt, Piniella praised Victor Zambrano, another candidate for a spot in the rotation. ... Bosio singled out Jason Standridge, who is trying to improve his breaking ball: "He's made good improvement and threw great." ... Overall, Bosio is pleased with the staff: "I'll tell you, I'm cautious right now, but I'm really enthused with what I'm seeing."

MISCELLANY: Catcher Angel Pena joined the team after being delayed in the Dominican Republic with visa complications. Piniella's reaction: "He's a little heavy." ... Standridge will throw out the first pitch at Northeast Little League at 2:15 today. ... The Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens will make its annual lunch visit Monday.

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