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Huber still has something to prove

Huber looks to pick up where he left off

SEATTLE -- Jon Huber certainly isn't ready to discard the sparkling 1.08 ERA he posted in 16 late-season games in 2006, although he's not counting on it helping him much as he tries to earn a spot in the bullpen during Spring Training.

"I came up in September and put my name on the map," Huber said. "But my mind-set is I still feel like I have something to prove. I'm coming in ready to go -- I'm excited to start."

Last September, Huber was excited to finish -- finish the season, that is, as a member of the Mariners bullpen after spending the first five months of the season pitching in relief with Double-A San Antonio and later Triple-A Tacoma.

That was Huber's first extended stint as a reliever, as the 25-year-old right-hander spent his first six professional seasons as a starting pitcher, first in the Padres organization and then in 2004 when he was traded to Seattle.

The Mariners didn't exactly give Huber a soft landing, as two days after he was recalled from Tacoma, he entered an Aug. 30 game against the Angels with two runners on base only to strike out Howie Kendrick with the last of three nasty sliders in a 5-3 loss.

"My very first appearance was dream come true," Huber said. "I wanted to strike out the first guy I faced. I was jumping out of my skin. That was great. I had a great time and it was a great learning experience."

So were subsequent outings over the final month of the season when Huber proved his worth as a late-inning specialist. He limited opposing batters to a .172 batting average and closed the season with 11 1/3 scoreless innings over nine games, allowing just four hits.

"I was pleased," Huber said. "I went out there and I realized that it was the same game anywhere you play it. Before I got called up to Seattle I told myself I wasn't going to be intimidated because Vladimir Guerrero is up there. I have to get him out."

That late-season performance, as Huber said, put him on the map and on the radar for 2007. His fearless attitude and ability to throw a nasty, darting slider for strikes at any point in the count might well earn Huber a spot on the Opening Day roster.

None of this seemed likely a year ago when Huber went to Spring Training. It was only when he got to Peoria that his path to the Major Leagues, unbeknown to him at the time, first became a possibility.

It all started with a decision late in Spring Training by the Mariners to convert him into a reliever.

"I guess the coaches had been talking about it, but they didn't say anything until the third day before we broke camp," Huber said. "They told me I was going back to San Antonio to be a closer. I was excited about it. I thought it fit my mentality better than as a starter."

Huber began the season with San Antonio, where he made his first relief appearance since 2004. He eventually saved 11 games before earning a promotion to Tacoma. He was 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA there with 12 more saves.

"I liked it. I knew I could be in there every day," Huber said. "Some guys need to know when they're going to pitch. I'd rather know just before I go in. I just go in there and do it. That's one of the things that worked for me. As a starter, you have to reserve your energy. As a closer, you just go in there and go after guys."

The same approach worked well for Huber at the Major League level as well. He allowed runs in only two of his 16 appearances, using his slider to get out of tough jams that he was faced with.

"As a starter, you have to work on mixing your pitches," Huber said. "But being a closer, it gave me a chance to develop my slider more. It became my out pitch. I think that it made me a little more aggressive."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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