McClung all set to close this season

Improved McClung ready to close in 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- It wasn't an official proclamation.

But Rays manager Joe Maddon gave a good impression Thursday that Seth McClung will be the team's closer this season.

"He had a difficult season last year, but he eventually learned how to be a closer," Maddon said during the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Tropicana Field. "He has the makeup to be successful in the role. He has a real calm on the mound."

Maddon discussed the improvements McClung made towards the end of the season, in which the 6-foot-6, 250-pound redhead went 4-2 with six saves as a reliever.

"You'll see the developments he's made in the offseason, and you'll be excited about his 95 to 98 mph fastball with a very good curveball," said Maddon.

McClung, who joined Jae Seo, Doug Waechter, and newly arrived Akinori Iwamura at the luncheon, said his learning curve began to change in 2006, when he started having conversations with opposing relievers such as Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and White Sox finisher Bobby Jenks.

"Dan Miceli told me not to be afraid to ask them for tips," said McClung, who sported a new slicked-back, long hairdo. "Mariano was really open and talked in length about the mentality and the approach to being a closer. And I learned a lot from Bobby."

One of the things McClung took from his conversation with Jenks is the importance of a quality strength and conditioning regime.

During the offseason, McClung, who had Tommy John elbow surgery in 2003, said he improved on his flexibility and his strength during his busy offseason.

"I developed a stronger upper body and my arm slot has improved where I'm not feeling any effects from the surgery anymore," said McClung, who turned 26 on Wednesday.

McClung, who is a video game enthusiast, recently competed in an Xbox tournament during the Super Bowl festivities to help raise money for Johnny Damon's charity.

But McClung beamed when he talked in length about his involvement in his other passion, basketball.

He founded the West Virginia Rush, an AAU program for basketball, baseball and softball, a few years ago, and he spent several months in his home state making preparations for the upcoming AAU season.

In addition, McClung, who turned down a scholarship to play basketball and baseball at South Alabama after being drafted by the Rays, has served as an assistant coach for the University of Tampa women's basketball team, helping the Spartans to a 17-6 record so far this season.

"It's not necessarily having a full plate," joked McClung. "It's more like the old saying, 'Idle time produces ill results.' So I'm just staying as busy as I can to be as productive as I can be."

To make matters even busier, McClung, who will report with the rest of the Rays' pitchers on Feb. 16, received a notice at the end of last week that he's been selected for jury duty for the end of February and the beginning of March.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," joked McClung. "It's kind of nuts. I'm still trying to figure out what the next step is."

Either way, McClung reassured fans that his main priority is continuing to better himself as the closer.

"No worries, I'll be ready to go," said McClung.

Digging for May, Waechter -- who underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder in October -- said he hopes to pitch in a game by May.

He signed a Minor League contract with the Rays in December, and he is expected to continue his rehabilitation during Spring Training.

Waechter, who went 1-4 with a 6.62 ERA for the Rays, has been throwing bullpen sessions and doing soft toss from 60 feet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

"I'm feeling a lot better," said Waechter. "I'm throwing firm and I feel strong. There's been a lot of times where I've reared back and thrown harder. But the trainers step in and tell me to pull back and take it easy."

Chris Girandola is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.