Saturday, March 15, 2003

Every pitch precious to Williams

RHP fights for job after facing elbow surgery, heart problem

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SARASOTA, Fla. - It was a six-pitch inning in a spring training game. Just a line in the box score from the Reds' 10-5 loss to the Detroit Tigers, but it meant the world to Blake Williams.

"That's exactly what I wanted," he said. "It was huge for me. I forgot what it was like."

Williams, a 24-year-old right-hander, is one of the overlooked stories of spring training. The fact that he didn't pitch until Friday was lost in the shuffle that comes with 33 pitchers in camp.

The Reds picked Williams in the Rule 5 Draft. They were willing to pay $50,000 for the unprotected St. Louis Cardinals prospect coming off ligament-replacement surgery in his elbow.

That injury proved the least of Williams' problems. His EKG came up abnormal, but that was followed by an echocardiogram that revealed a hole in his heart.

Williams was with St. Louis when Darryl Kile died from a heart condition last year, so the worst came to mind.

"It was scary because they didn't know how serious it was," he said. "They thought I might need open-heart surgery. That would have been the end of my baseball career."

Williams endured more testing. A procedure called an echo tee - in which a tiny camera was sent down the throat - showed the hole was small.

"It's something I can take care of in the offseason," he said, "or I may not have to do anything."

Williams didn't practice during the tests. When he was cleared, he was brought back slowly.

"They had me throwing on the side - nothing strenuous," he said,

Williams is still a long shot to make the club.

He allowed a bloop hit Friday, but got a double-play ball in the next pitch. He got the third out without breaking much of a sweat.

If the Reds don't keep him on the 25-man roster, they must offer him back to the Cardinals for $25,000 - half of what they paid to claim him.

"We haven't talked about that at all," Williams said. "I'd like to get in three or four outings before they made a decision. I hope to make it, but if I don't, being here in big-league camp has been a good experience."

Williams has pitched only 25 games in the minors, none above the Single-A level.

He's 7-12 with a 2.23 ERA, allowing 104 hits in 141 innings. He has struck out 125 and walked 40.

"He's a got a good arm," Reds manager Bob Boone said. "But it's a big jump."

Friday was a good start.

"It was a good inning for him," Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. "He didn't have the velocity he's had, but he pitched."

The Reds already sent one of their other Rule 5 picks, Jerome Gamble, back to his old club, the Boston Red Sox.

Williams is one of 18 pitchers left in camp.

"If he's in camp, he's got a shot," Bowden said. "Some have a better shot than others, but he has a shot."

A chance at making the big league team is pretty sweet, considering what Williams has been through.

"It was great to be out there again," he said, "to have the adrenaline flowing. That's what I play the game for."

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