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03/21/09 7:20 PM ET
Chulk making case for last spot in 'pen
Offseason work at high school paying off for Indians right-hander
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Miami's Westminster Christian High School is best known in baseball circles as Alex Rodriguez's old stomping grounds. But over the winter, reliever Vinnie Chulk was using the school as his current stomping grounds, pitching in the Warriors baseball team's intrasquad games.
The thought of the 30-year-old Chulk, who has more than four years of Major League service, plowing through a lineup of high school kids is a funny one. But the arrangement served a mutually beneficial purpose. Chulk got to work on locating his pitches, and the kids got their first look at, among other things, a big league slider.
"I said, 'Listen, you're going to be seeing this if you make it sometime, so you might as well take some hacks at it,'" Chulk said. "They loved it."
Chulk, who lives near Westminster Christian, said he got something out of the experience.
"It was good to see I was hitting all my spots," he said. "That was basically what I was there for."
He's taken that command into the Cactus League season, where he is competing in -- and possibly leading -- the fight for the Indians' last bullpen spot. Little has gone to plan with regard to that spot, and Chulk is in a position to take advantage.
Prospect Adam Miller was supposed to be the favorite for the job, but now he's facing the prospect of season-ending and career-threatening surgery on his right middle finger. The hard-throwing Ed Mujica is out of Minor League options, but, pressing to make the club, his spring was thrown off-track by some early stumbles in the Cactus League season.
So with less than two weeks remaining before the Indians break out of their Goodyear camp, the bullpen competition is still considered wide open. And Chulk's 2.31 ERA in seven appearances is looking pretty promising.
In 11 2/3 innings, Chulk has allowed three runs on six hits with three walks, seven strikeouts and a hit batter. The opposition is batting .158 against him.
"For the first time in a little while, I'm throwing the ball like I want to," he said. "I've got my sinker working and the slider has always been a go-to pitch for me. I've been able to locate it behind in the count or ahead in the count in the dirt when I need to. I've been getting a lot of swings and misses and grounders on changeups to lefties, and that's helped my stats."
The Indians' bullpen figures to need some help in the middle innings this season, particularly with a starting rotation loaded with question marks and right-hander Masa Kobayashi having a poor spring that could potentially put his job in jeopardy.
Even if he doesn't crack the Opening Day roster, then, Chulk might eventually get the call. But if Chulk's not promoted by May 15, he has an out clause in his Minor League contract that would allow him to leave the Indians and pursue an opportunity elsewhere.
Chulk, of course, hopes it doesn't come to that. He's acclimated well to this organization in this extended spring camp, and he feels ready to contribute.
"As far as I'm concerned, I feel I have a good shot," he said. "We'll see what happens here in 10 days. But I feel I've put my stuff on the table. They have to make decisions, and I respect that, but I feel like I've put myself in a good situation."
Chulk has a career record of 7-14 with a 4.36 ERA in 244 appearances with the Blue Jays and Giants over the past six seasons. In 2008 with the Giants, he went 0-3 with a 4.83 ERA in 27 appearances before he was designated for assignment midseason. He posted a 3.65 ERA in 22 appearances at Triple-A Fresno.
Unfortunately, his stats against the high school team aren't readily available. But Chulk said the extra work in the offseason has him feeling stronger this spring.
"I just feel better when I throw a lot, as crazy as that might sound," he said. "I don't know if it's because I pitch better when I'm tired or if I just get honed in from throwing a lot. But it just feels a lot better and my arm recuperates a lot quicker, day to day."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.