Upset at his bullpen assignment, the Rays pitcher bites his tongue and winds up back in the starting rotation.
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The key to pitching is knowing how to hit your spots when on the mound. And, perhaps, knowing when to pick your spots off the mound.
Just when Tanyon Sturtze figured out the first half of that equation, he was forced to deal with the second half.
Which is why Sturtze spent the spring and the first month of the season biting his lip in Tampa Bay's bullpen.
After 11 years of pro ball, Sturtze believed he had finally begun to establish himself as a starter in the majors late last season.
Yet, on the first day of spring training, he was told he was returning to the bullpen as a contender for the closing job. Near the end of spring, he learned he would be used more as a set-up man than a closer.
His first reaction was anger. His second was extreme anger. Sturtze wanted to shout long and loud. Instead, he listened to the counsel of Albie Lopez, who implored him to be patient and be quiet.
The reward arrives tonight. Sturtze is back in the Rays rotation.
His stint in the bullpen might have been short-term, but it gave him time to look far ahead.
"I'd read in the paper that maybe I might be in the bullpen, but no one had talked to me about it during the winter," Sturtze said. "It was pretty quiet until the first day of camp when they told me.
"It was tough. I had worked real hard with Mike DiFelice in the off-season and I was thinking I had a real good shot to be one of the five starters. To get that on the first day of camp was a real letdown. But I decided I better do what they wanted me to do or else I wouldn't even have that job."
Moving him back into the rotation is just what Sturtze wanted and, perhaps, just what Tampa Bay needs. Rays pitchers have averaged fewer innings per start than any staff in the American League.
The Rays moved Sturtze to the bullpen only because they had lost so many relievers to trades in the previous eight months, and they were unsure Esteban Yan could take over the closer's role.
With Yan pitching well the first month, Sturtze was relegated to duty in the seventh and eighth innings. Considering how the rotation has struggled, and Ryan Rupe in particular, manager Hal McRae made the move previous manager Larry Rothschild had been considering himself.
"It was moreso to get Sturtze into the rotation and find a place for Rupe where he could help the ballclub," McRae said. "Sturtze has a history with the club and this move had been talked about all spring, so it wasn't difficult to convince me that we should try this."
Sturtze, 30, debuted in the Rays rotation Aug. 5 after Steve Trachsel was traded to the Mets and promptly went 3-0 with a 2.28 ERA in five starts before his season ended with a muscle pull near his rib cage.
His success may have been a revelation for others, but the Rays had envisioned that scenario when they acquired him from the White Sox two months earlier. Although Sturtze had bounced around in the minors for a decade after being drafted in the 23rd round by the Athletics in 1990, Tampa Bay scouts were convinced he was about to blossom.
Tampa Bay officials were talking to the Astros about a trade for utility infielder Russ Johnson, so they felt comfortable offering infielder Tony Graffanino to the White Sox for Sturtze.
He had developed a split-finger fastball and finally was showing some signs of control in and around the strike zone. After averaging more than four walks per nine innings in his first 10 years of pro ball, Sturtze gave up an average of 2.3 walks with the Rays last season.
"Our scouts had been watching him in Triple A for two years and thought he looked more mature than they had seen in the past," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Someone who has been in the minors as long as he had, the red flag always goes up because you wonder if he's ever going to put it together. But to our scouts' credit, they said let's not give up on this guy because of his age. They felt he really had matured as a pitcher."
Before last season, Sturtze had pitched in fewer than 20 big-league games. The word was that he had a great arm but had not learned how to use it.
Sturtze does not exactly dispute that label. Although he may not have gotten much of a chance to prove himself in brief major-league stints with the Cubs, Rangers and White Sox, he said he really was not ready to excel until 1999, when Triple-A Charlotte coach Kirk Champion adjusted his mechanics.
"I still don't know what I'm capable of doing. Right now, I just want to leave every game knowing that I gave the team a chance to win," Sturtze said. "I was really ecstatic about last year, and I'm excited to get the chance again. Last year was my over-the-hump year. Once I made those starts, I was convinced I could do the job up here."