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02/24/09 1:01 PM EST

Sowers to get Tribe's games started

Left-hander begins 'tough competition' for fifth rotation spot

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Cactus League season begins Wednesday, and with it begins the Indians' most intriguing position battle.

When Jeremy Sowers takes the ball and delivers the first pitch at 3:05 p.m. ET on MLB.TV against the Giants at Goodyear Ballpark, the Tribe's sparkling new spring home, he'll kick off the five-man fight for the Tribe's fifth and final rotation spot.

It's a fight that has implications beyond the Opening Day roster. While Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona are locks for the rotation's top two spots, No. 3 starter Carl Pavano has pitched only 45 2/3 innings over the past two seasons and likely No. 4 starter Anthony Reyes has a chronic elbow condition that makes him a question mark.

So Sowers and fellow young left-handers Aaron Laffey, David Huff, Zach Jackson and Scott Lewis have plenty of incentive to impress the higher-ups. If a big league job isn't offered to them by the end of camp, it just might be at some point this season.

The 25-year-old Sowers knows this as well as anybody. Last year, a variety of ailments and trades allowed him to get an extended look at the Major League level. The result, however, was a letdown, as Sowers went 4-9 with a 5.58 ERA in 22 starts.

"We saw the velocity [of his fastball] come back," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "But he sacrificed command to get it. Before, especially in '06, he was a guy with well-above-average command."

That knack for command was what attracted the Indians to Sowers in the first place. They made him the sixth overall pick in the 2004 Draft because he displayed an advanced aptitude at Vanderbilt. And when he reached the big leagues, he lived up to that promise by going 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 14 starts. His second-half ERA of 2.72 was the second lowest in the American League.

Everything since has been a struggle for Sowers.

In 2007, he lost his rotation job by mid-June when he started the season 1-6 with a 6.93 ERA. He wasn't heard from again until the last week of the season, when he made a lone spot start against the Mariners.

Last year, Sowers kicked his fastball up a notch, as the Indians had requested, and he dominated at Triple-A Buffalo at the outset of the season. Injuries to Jake Westbrook and Carmona opened the door for Sowers to receive three calls to the big leagues. His third callup in early June turned out to be a permanent one, but the success he had in Buffalo didn't carry over. Command was one issue, and the struggle to separate the speed of his changeup from that of his fastball was another.

Sowers has made the changeup one of his focal points in camp.

"It's easier said than done to try to slow a pitch down," he said. "My hands might just not be big enough."

On the back fields of the Indians' Player Development Complex, Willis had Sowers move closer to the first-base side of the rubber because he thinks that will help Sowers' command of his pitches and his ability to hide the ball from the hitter during his delivery.

"Truthfully, the tell-tale sign will be when he faces hitters," Willis said.

He'll face them Wednesday, in a beautiful new ballpark and in front of a packed house welcoming the Indians back to Cactus League play for the first time since 1992.

"You try to take advantage of the opportunities you get," Sowers said. "I have a great opportunity here in Spring Training, and we have a little bit extra time to get an extended look and try to convince them one way or another."

The Indians have ensured the candidates for the open rotation job will get that extended look by pushing the spring debut of reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, who amassed a career-high 223 1/3 innings last season, back to the first week of March. Pavano and Reyes will also be held back early on.

Though the rotation battle is billed as "wide open" by Willis, Sowers has to be considered a bit of an underdog because of his underwhelming '08.

He knows he has a lot to prove here.

"Ideally, you try to ignore any sort of competition with other people and rather try to make sure you're the best you can be at the start of the year," he said. "If that's good enough, that's awesome. If not, you try to make sure it's good enough at some point in the year. We've got a lot of qualified guys for the last couple jobs, and it's going to be a tough competition."

And it begins Wednesday.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.