04/01/2004 9:30 PM ET
Two vie for final bullpen spot
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Vladimir Nunez and Tim Harikkala carried demeanors that matched their Hawaiian print shirts -- continental cool, island relaxed -- on Thursday afternoon.
|Vladimir Nunez is scheduled to pitch an inning in Friday's Rockies-Texas Rangers game in Las Vegas. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Both of the right-handed relief pitchers would board the Colorado Rockies plane for Las Vegas for what most likely is their final roll at a chance to begin the season with the big-league team. Both are scheduled to throw an inning in Friday night's Rockies-Texas Rangers exhibition game at Cashman Field in Las Vegas. They're competing for the Rockies' final bullpen spot.
The only other spot available for the 25-man roster that will open the season at Arizona on Tuesday afternoon is for an outfielder - either switch-hitting Rene Reyes, who has big-league experience and can play all three positions, or left-handed hitting Matt Holliday, a corner outfielder who has never played Triple-A but is one of the team's top power-hitting prospects.
Both are non-roster players, which would give the Rockies eight coming out of the spring. On the 40-man list of players eligible for big-league service, the Rockies need to clear three spots. They officially are at 38, and upcoming moves with injured players pitchers Denny Neagle and Adam Bernero plus injured outfielder Cory Sullivan will clear three more spaces.
But that will come after manager Clint Hurdle and the coaches and front office make a decision. Their choices: Nunez, a former closer who can give right-handed support in case Shawn Chacon needs off time, and Harikkala, whose experience as a starter during a 12-season career spent mostly in the minors allows him to fill various middle and long relief roles.
If Nunez (3.75 ERA in 12 innings this spring) and Harikkala (3-0, 0.68 in 13 1/3 innings) were acting as if they've been here before, it's because they have.
"I've been through these moments before," Nunez said. "In '99 with the Diamondbacks, that was the last day, and in 2000 with the Marlins I had to wait until the last day to make it in the [starting] rotation. This is the third time."
In 1999, Nunez, 29, went 7-10 with the Diamondbacks and the Marlins in 44 games, including 12 starts. In 2000, Nunez achieved No. 3 starter status but went 0-6 in 17 games, including 12 starts, in a year that saw him go down to Triple-A Calgary. Nunez eventually became the Marlins' primary closer in 2002, finishing with 20 saves.
He has learned not to sweat decisions.
"Just go out there and try to do the same things I have been doing, and after that wait for the decision -- I don't make the decision," Nunez said.
There is a slight difference between now and the last time Harikkala, 32, was at this point.
Harikkala, a starter for much of his minor-league career, had a strong spring for Boston in 1999. But before the Red Sox left for an exhibition -- at Coors Field against the Rockies -- management told him he would not make the squad for Opening Day.
"I still went on the trip just to go," said Harikkala, who didn't pitch in the exhibition that was played -- the other game was snowed out. "It was already a decision that was made. They were just locked up roster-wise and they had guaranteed money tied up."
Harikkala, however, showed the Sox enough to earn a call-up in April. He went 1-1 with a 6.23 ERA in seven relief appearances. He has not been back to the big leagues.
Harikkala nearly got his chance to make his case on Thursday. The Rockies asked him to get ready to pitch the 10th inning against the Chicago White Sox at Tucson Electric Park, but the Sox were out of pitchers so the game was declared a 5-5 tie after nine innings.
The perceived pressure of the situation excites Harikkala, a fast worker whose innings were easy to miss this spring because he threw aggressive strikes and forced quick decisions.
"I expected to be here," he said. "If you don't, your chances go out the window the first week of camp.
"I love playing the game. I'm always happy to pitch."
In other moves on Thursday, the Rockies optioned right-handed pitchers Chin-hui Tsao and Allan Simpson, and outfielders Brad Hawpe and Choo Freeman to Triple-A Colorado Springs. All were up for Opening Day spots, but were determined to be in need of seasoning.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.