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MLB: Spring longshots that made it big

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  • MLB: Spring longshots that made it big

    If you're like us, you have no trouble distinguishing between the two Luis Gonzalezes. Arizona's Luis Gonzalez once hit 57 homers, drove in the winning run in the 2001 World Series and is the father of triplets. Colorado's Luis Gonzalez ... well ... he's not that guy.

    The two Abraham Nunezes are tougher to keep straight. Pittsburgh's Abraham Nunez is 28 years old, plays second base and comes from the Dominican Republic. Florida's Abraham Nunez is 27, plays the outfield and comes from the Dominican Republic. Best of luck with that one.

    Several other players who cracked Opening Day rosters were considered longshots or afterthoughts at the start of spring training. Some of their stories are offbeat, while others qualify as inspirational. With apologies to MIT grad-turned-Padres reliever Jason Szuminski, who's already received plenty of press, here are 10 that caught our attention:

    C.J. Nitkowski, Atlanta
    Nitkowski, Cincinnati's No. 1 draft pick in 1994, earned a reputation as a grumbler and a bit of a clubhouse lawyer early in his career. Then he saved his 2-year-old son from drowning in the family swimming pool, and the incident sparked a religious awakening. Now Nitkowski devotes most of his personal Web site to discussing his relationship with Jesus Christ. Nitkowski throws 94 mph, and that helped win him a spot as one of two lefties in Atlanta's bullpen. Unfortunately, velocity didn't help him much Wednesday, when Mike Piazza touched him for a 456-foot homer, the second longest in Turner Field history.

    Peter Bergeron, Montreal
    Bergeron, a lefty contact hitter with speed, was once compared with Brett Butler and Steve Finley, without the power. But after he regressed from .245 to .211 to .187 in his first three tours of Montreal, there was a feeling that he'd been rushed and might have trouble making it back. Bergeron re-asserted himself with a big spring and began the season as Montreal's center fielder. He'll have to produce if he wants to hang onto a starting spot when first baseman Nick Johnson comes off the disabled list and Brad Wilkerson returns to the outfield.

    Tony Womack, St. Louis
    Pitchers typically need a year to recover from an elbow reconstruction. Womack is back playing second base regularly only six months after Tommy John surgery. St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty acquired Womack near the end of spring training after Marlon Anderson and Bo Hart both failed to impress the Cardinals. Womack is a career .315 on-base percentage guy and nothing special defensively, but he's an aggressive player and can make things happen at the top of the order with his speed. He stole 80 bases two years ago in Arizona.

    Mike Johnston, Pittsburgh
    Johnston, who makes the jump from Double-A Altoona, joins Jim Eisenreich as the second big leaguer known to have Tourette's Syndrome. Johnston's case was severe enough for him to drop out of high school in suburban Philadelphia and work at a magazine stand while obtaining his GED. Johnston throws a fastball in the mid-90s and a sharp-breaking slider. The Pirates began the season with Johnston and John Grabow as their two lefties in the bullpen.

    Tyler Yates, New York Mets
    Yates, another Tommy John guy, surprised everyone by breaking camp as the Mets' No. 4 starter. He's physically imposing at 6-4, 220 and has a power arm, but he pitched almost exclusively as a reliever in the minors before converting to starter last season. One big-league executive thinks the Mets would have been better served letting Yates begin the season with Triple-A Norfolk and keeping Jae Weong Seo, even though Seo had a terrible spring training. "That's typical Mets," the executive said. "They make a decision based on a kid having a nice two weeks, and send out a guy who gave them a good three months last year."

    Donovan Osborne, New York Yankees
    Never mind that it took an injury to Jon Lieber to create an opening or that Joe Torre picked Jorge De Paula to start in the No. 5 spot this weekend against the Chicago White Sox. Osborne's appearance on an Opening Day roster is the ultimate reward for persistence. He hasn't pitched 90 innings in a season since 1996, when he was in the St. Louis rotation with Mike Morgan, Todd Stottlemyre and Andy and Alan Benes. Osborne actually managed to outlast both Morgan and -- wonders never cease -- eternal lefty Tony Fossas.

    Bubba Crosby, New York Yankees
    Two long shots start the season with the Yankees? That in itself is a long shot. Crosby, drafted No. 1 by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Rice in 1998, beat out Homer Bush and Darren Bragg for the final spot on the New York roster. He doesn't have much power, but he plays the game with an energy and enthusiasm that his teammates and the New York coaches already love. "It hasn't been an easy road for him," said an American League official. "Six years in the minors for a No. 1 pick is a long time. I give him a lot of credit."

    Trent Durrington, Milwaukee
    Durrington, a 28-year-old Australia native, has spent most of his 10 professional seasons in the minor leagues with Anaheim. His chances didn't look good after Milwaukee acquired middle infielders Craig Counsell and Junior Spivey in an offseason trade with Arizona. But Durrington beat out Jon Nunnally, Chris Magruder and Jeff Liefer for a roster spot with his versatility and hard-core approach. He'll play second base, third base and even catch in an emergency for manager Ned Yost.

    Casey Daigle, Arizona
    Daigle, the fiancé of softball star Jennie Finch, went 31-38 in four minor-league seasons with the Diamondbacks. But he was impressive in spring training and won a starting job when Shane Reynolds failed to retire anybody in Arizona. Daigle has a big-league pitcher's frame at 6-5 and 220 pounds. He throws a fastball in the low 90s and has a slider, but needs to develop consistency with it. He'll learn as part of Bob Brenly's rotation.

    Simon Pond, Toronto
    Pond, the 16th native Canadian to appear on Toronto's 40-man roster, tore it up in winter ball in Puerto Rico and kept on producing in the Grapefruit League. He holds the bat with an odd, interlocking grip, but is quick enough through the zone to punish down-and-in fastballs. "We watched him in batting practice one day and he really put on a show," said an AL coach who saw Pond in Florida. As a bonus, Pond is a dead ringer for hockey star Mark Messier. His nickname in the Toronto clubhouse is "Mess."

    Jerry Crasnick is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be reached via e-mail.

    "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
    Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
    -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy

  • #2
    I heard Pat Hughes (WGN/Cubs radio) mention that the Rockies had 9 non-roster invites make the MLB club out of spring training this year. Typically a team has 1 or 2. The sad thing is that none of them probably qualify as "long-shots" since the only reason they made the team is that Colorado is so bad. I think everyone is on equal gound with making that team.

    By the way, I think we all know who one of those 9 were...yup, Fassero.
    Of course you do.


    • #3
      It is not only amazing that Fassero continues to find work, but that Colorado, of all places, would want him.

      Old lefthanders never die, they just fade away. Slowly.
      I'm always right.


      • #4
        Poor rockiesgirl
        Sometimes elections have positive consequences!


        • #5
          Originally posted by cardinalgirl@Apr 9 2004, 11:30 AM
          Poor rockiesgirl
          Yes, somewhere in Denver, a young lady is weeping. And stuff.
          I'm always right.