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Monday, March 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mariners

No relief from poorly pitching hopefuls

Seattle Times staff reporter

TEMPE, Ariz. — Rafael Chavez doesn't bother mincing words. Relievers trying to fill the Mariners' final two bullpen spots are pitching so poorly that their pitching coach said they are "competing to lose a job."

Final auditions, like the ones taking place right now, carry more weight than appearances early in spring training. And these look like early "American Idol" episodes — meaning there are plenty of pitch problems.

"I'm not discouraged at all, but I'm unhappy," Chavez said. "Somebody has to step up, and somebody has to take charge, and somebody has to win a job."

The jobs are there for winning. Manager Mike Hargrove said that much last week, adding he hoped they were not won by default. Since he said that, six of eight bullpen hopefuls took the mound the last two days — and all six have been hit hard.

Some of the runs were given up by minor-leaguers, and some balls that go for hits here would be outs at Safeco Field. That said, the Mariners have allowed 35 runs the past two games, or one more than they allowed in the seven games before that.

"Everybody knows that there are spots open here," said Jeff Harris, who is competing for one. "We really, collectively, just haven't been getting it done."

The Mariners are expected to carry 11 pitchers on their 25-man roster, and nine of those spots — five starters, plus relievers Eddie Guardado, Julio Mateo, J.J. Putz and Rafael Soriano — are set.

Left-handed candidates for the final two bullpen slots include George Sherrill (16.50 earned-run average), Rule 5 pitcher Luis Gonzalez (9.00 ERA) and Jake Woods (8.38 ERA).

Sherrill appeared to have the job entering spring training, but he has not pitched well and recently has been sidelined by shoulder stiffness. Hargrove said he expects Sherrill, who is scheduled to play catch today, to pitch in "the next couple days."

Meanwhile, Gonzalez took the loss and gave up four runs, three earned, on Saturday, while Woods, already considered a longshot, allowed a home run in 2-2/3 innings.

Right-handed candidates include Scott Atchison (14.54 ERA), Francisco Cruceta (4.50 ERA), Sean Green (11.37 ERA), Harris (8.10 ERA), and Clint Nageotte (6.23 ERA).

Nageotte dropped 20 pounds this offseason and pitched himself into contention, earning Hargrove's praises last week when the manager said "he hasn't done himself any harm." That came Sunday, when Nageotte pitched a perfect first inning, even striking out Vladimir Guerrero, only to allow three runs in the second.

His lapse opened the door for the competition — but Cruceta, who entered the game with an 0.90 ERA, was rocked for five runs in two innings, Harris gave up two runs in two innings and Atchison allowed five runs (two earned) in two innings.

Kevin Appier and his 2.84 ERA impressed before he suffered a strained right calf on March 17. He's scheduled to pitch a bullpen session today, and said he would start the season in Class AAA Tacoma to get more work in.

Nageotte said the pressure of competing for the final two slots isn't the problem, calling it "the last thing I'm thinking about."

But it likely is weighing on Chavez, nearing the conclusion of his first spring training as the Mariners' pitching coach.

"I never thought it was going to be easy," Chavez said. "It's a challenge. But that's just the first step. You have to compete, you've got to fight, and you've got to find a way to get it done."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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