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Nothing being left to chance

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Jeff Wallace, left, and Trevor Enders are two of the pitchers who were brought in to a fill a precious, but important, spot on the roster.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


The Rays, always searching for a left-handed reliever, have 10 in camp hoping to fill one, maybe two, spots.

ST. PETERSBURG -- As a species, they are a resilient lot. Defiant to the years, undaunted by their failures. They seem to multiply in spring and turn up missing in summer. Behold the left-handed reliever.

They are everywhere in the Tampa Bay clubhouse. Jeff Wallace and Paul Spoljaric are here. Bobby Seay and Bill Pulsipher are over there. Nearly one of every six Rays players in camp is a lefty auditioning for the bullpen.

"I thought they were hording them," Spoljaric said.

If the Rays could, they would. Tampa Bay has been searching for a left-handed specialist since the early days of the franchise. Which is not as bad as some teams that have been on the lookout since the Hoover administration. The Dodgers have 44-year-old left-hander Jesse Orosco in their camp.

"When you read the notes about other teams," manager Larry Rothschild said, "it seems a lot of them are looking for that (left-hander)."

The Rays have run through a not-so-memorable cast of characters during their search. Jim Morris, a high school physics teacher who was out of pro baseball for a decade, was the only lefty reliever on the 2000 opening day roster. Alan Newman balked home a run before throwing his first pitch in the majors in 1999. Bill Pennington put in an appearance in '98, giving up a hit and three walks without retiring a batter and was never heard from again.

All of which explains why the Rays have 10 lefties in camp with one, maybe two, positions available in the bullpen.

"That says one thing to me -- they have openings," Spoljaric said. "So whoever pitches the best is going to make the team. As far as I'm concerned, that's the only opportunity I'm looking for."

The job, while not simple, is simply defined. The left-handers are supposed to be able to retire left-handed batters in key situations late in the game.

"Your left-handed specialist is like a field-goal kicker. You either come in and do the job or you don't," Rothschild said. "Usually, because of that, you'll see more of a veteran presence in that role. But if a kid has good enough stuff, he'll come to the party."

If there are front-runners for the job, it probably would be Spoljaric, Doug Creek and Seay.

Spoljaric, 30, was a quality setup man for Toronto and Seattle from 1996-98, but has bounced around the past two seasons. The Rays pursued him after he was released by the Cardinals last spring, but he opted to sign with Kansas City. He spent most of the season in Triple A. When he became a free agent in October, he signed with Tampa Bay.

"They said, 'Listen, if you come in and pitch like you're supposed to, you're going to make this club.' That's all I could ask for," Spoljaric said. "In my mind, I've already made the club and I feel bad for all the other guys. If I didn't think that way, it would be self-defeating. I've got to set my goals high and try to attain them."

Creek, 32, is the lone holdover from last season on the 40-man roster. Called up in late May, he had a strong two months before stumbling down the stretch.

"I thought I threw pretty well for them. In my mind, I feel like I've shown them I can do the job," Creek said. "But anybody in my position who feels their job is secure is fooling themselves. They brought a lot of left-handers in here and it's going to push me to be even better."

Seay, 23, could be a wild card in the mix. A top prospect signed in 1996 for $3-million, he never has pitched above Double A and has been a starter during his minor-league career. But the Rays were impressed with the improvement he made in 2000 and might ease him into the big leagues in a reliever's role.

"I think being a reliever suits my personality because I like to go after hitters," Seay said. "I don't care what my role is, I just want to be on the team. I'm ready for it. I have my eye on that job, as does every other lefty in camp."

Other contenders for the job include: Stevenson Agosto, Mike Duvall, Derrin Ebert, Trevor Enders, Pulsipher, Ronni Severino and Wallace.

The Rays usually have had the luxury of carrying only one left-handed reliever because right-hander Jim Mecir threw a screwball that made him effective against all hitters. With Mecir traded to Oakland, Rothschild said he will consider carrying two left-handers -- if he finds two who can do the job.

With a pair of lefties in the bullpen, Rothschild would have the luxury of using one to face one batter to get out of a jam early in the game while keeping another for the eighth or ninth inning.

"All things being equal, I'd rather have two left-handers," Rothschild said. "But if they're not equal, I'll just go with more right-handers."

* * *

COMING FRIDAY: Special section offers a comprehensive look at spring training.

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