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Wheels start spinning in Rays rotation battle

Team is studying vast number of factors as six compete for two spots.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- The pitches are being charted, the deliveries videotaped, the results scrutinized. And over the next couple of weeks, the decisions will be made.

The Devil Rays are looking for a few good men to fill two open spots in their pitching rotation and have earnestly begun the enlistment -- and elimination -- process. It will be a choice based on how the half-dozen candidates perform, how they progress, how they project.

"It's everything," manager Larry Rothschild said. "What I'm interested in out of the fourth and fifth spot would be innings. It's going to have to look like somebody who can give us innings. And how you make the decision is more I think the feeling you get, along with the performance you see. The competitive side of it, the aggressive side, the ability to get hitters out and know how to go about it.

"And a lot of times it's going to sound more like a veteran player to be able to live through some of the tougher times and still be able to keep your head on your shoulders and keep us in games."

Spring training is half over and the field was trimmed somewhat with Friday's cuts, but in a way this race is just starting. Rothschild says it's too early even to know how tough the final decisions will be.

Each candidate takes the mound with something to prove.

Bobby Witt is seeking to extend a career that some say is over. "It's a do-or-die type thing for me," Witt, 34, said. Julio Santana, Jason Johnson and injured Bryan Rekar want to show they've become more mature and consistent pitchers. "You've got to try and make a good impression every time out," Rekar said. Roger Bailey is trying to re-establish his physical condition. "If I'm healthy, I think things will take care of themselves," Bailey said. Terrell Wade wants to make it clear he has regained his form after surgery and 15 months away. "I just have to get people out and throw strikes," Wade said. Long-shot rookie Ryan Rupe just wants to see if he can fit in.

With the fundamental drills completed and the obligatory brief initial spring appearances out of the way, it's now a matter of getting down to pitching.

"You're looking for stuff and the consistency of it," pitching coach Rick Williams said. "You're looking for them to make progress each time they take the mound. You're looking for command of the pitches. Just the whole package. The ability to hold runners, the ability to get ahead in counts, the ability to be aggressive, the intangible each one brings to the mound.

"Throw in how resilient you can project them to be every fifth day. It's just everything, whatever their whole package is individually. What it comes down to is stuff. What the stuff looks like outing to outing, the progress they make and, obviously, the results they get."

The dynamics of such a competition can be interesting. Pitchers tend to stick together, and the men who share meals, pitching tips and sometimes a seat on the bus are battling one another for their professional lives. Whether they want to admit it or not -- and they usually don't -- they know their chances to win a job can be predicated on someone else's success or failure. "It's not like I don't look," Rekar said.

What they try not to do is take that information to the mound. "You can't concern yourself with what the guy before you did or the guy after you," Wade said. "If you try to keep up with the other guys, it can affect what you do. You're in competition with yourself, and you have to do your best."

Bailey offers the veteran perspective that you're not going to succeed -- or fail -- in one outing. "I'm not looking to go out and make the team tomorrow or the next day," he said. But Witt reminds that progress is important too. "Every time out I've got to do the best job I can and make a better impression," he said.

Each of the candidates, obviously, is confident he can get the job done. "You've got to know it," Wade said.

To some, the competition is a personal challenge. "It depends on me," Santana said. "I pitched here last year, but I think I need to do more to keep my place here. I've got to earn it. I think I have the ability to be one of the best pitchers in the league one day, and I think this might be the year."

Some time in the next couple of weeks, the answers will, uh, start to become clear.

"It's not something where suddenly a light goes on and this is the guy," Williams said. "It's a process, and the pitchers themselves are the main ones who determine what that process is. We watch, evaluate and try to help, but in the end this is a battle that's done individually and however it all sorts itself, it usually does. It evolves."

FOR STARTERS

AHEAD IN THE COUN Julio Santana

Bobby Wit Terrell Wade

STILL BATTLIN Roger Bailey

Dave Eilan Jason Johnson

Bryan Reka LONG SHOT

Ryan Rup


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