ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Ridgway understands persistence. After dealing with years of injuries, the left-hander will be in the mix fighting for a spot in the Devil Rays' bullpen this spring.
Ridgway had his first experience with a serious arm injury 10 years ago, when he had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on his left arm. In the aftermath of the ordeal, Ridgway missed his junior and senior seasons at Port Angeles (Wash.) High School. He began to pitch again after his senior year, and the Rays selected him in the 14th round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft.
Ridgway showed early promise when he posted a 2.47 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings at Class A Princeton in 2000. Making the natural progression, he advanced to Class A Charleston in 2001 -- a season highlighted by a 22-inning scoreless streak -- before missing all of 2002, when he had his surgery to reconstruct his left shoulder that had a torn labrum, a frayed rotator cuff and inflammation.
"They shaved some bone and then they shrunk the capsule to the shoulder that holds the joint," Ridgway said. "They don't even do that anymore -- so it's hit or miss. I was one of the few lucky ones."
Ridgway returned to action in 2003, then moved to the bullpen in 2004, and, of course, another surgery followed.
"I think it was just a change in throwing every day or a lot more often -- I don't know -- but my elbow, there were some issues there," Ridgway said. "There was some cartilage built up in the back of my elbow. They went in and scoped it. It was supposed to be four to six weeks. It ended up being like eight, 10 months. That was when the new regime came to Tampa. I'm real fortunate that the management here has let me have another chance."
Now, Ridgway's head and body are right. The 26-year-old is healthy and he likes being in the bullpen.
"If you're in the bullpen and you've had a bad day, you can always counter it the next day, which is good," Ridgway said. "The worst thing about the bullpen is if you have one really bad day, it takes months to fix it. If you're going well, you always want to get into the game. And there's always a possibility you'll get into every game. That's my favorite thing."
Ridgway split time between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2006, and he thrived at both stops. While pitching for the Biscuits, Ridgway went 1-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 16 appearances. In addition, he had 29 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings with just seven walks. Ridgway had 34 appearances for the Bulls, where he went 1-4 with a 3.03 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings with just 13 walks.
"I was just able to get healthy again," said Ridgway when asked about his success. "I felt like I had all the stuff to get guys out. But I couldn't really put anybody away. I was fine getting ahead. So the past year or two, I just really focused on location, and then I could put them away with other things other than a power fastball. For the most part, being healthy is the No. 1 thing for getting guys out."
Ridgway believes "location is the best pitch in baseball." Such sentiments could go a long way in an organization that saw its bullpen allow a Major League-low 15.01 baserunners per nine innings.
"To start everything off, you're going to have to locate your fastball," Ridgway said. "And 95 percent of the guys ride that. There are certain guys who have changeups and everything else. But from Day 1, when you're 7 years old and taught to pitch, you want to be able to throw a fastball for a strike. I feel like since I got healthy, I've been able to do that more often than I've ever been able to."
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Ridgway's repertoire includes a four-seam fastball, a curveball and a changeup.
"I feel like if I want to get guys out, I don't have a specific out pitch," Ridgway said. "It's all about how I set them up to throw the pitch I put them away with."
The Rays' bullpen is wide open this spring. Jon Switzer was the only left-hander used in the bullpen in 2006, so that could be a battle, or Ridgway might endear himself enough to become a setup man.
"I like his competitiveness," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "He's not afraid to pitch inside. I like the way he's able to pitch to left-handers or right-handers, which allows him to be a full-inning pitcher."
Ridgway said he feels confident in his ability.
"I've worked really hard," Ridgway said. "If it's in the cards [to make the team], that's great. I've worked really hard and I try to do as much as I can every day to stay healthy, and we'll see where it goes from there."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.