Fossum stronger, ready for start of '07

Fossum stronger, ready for the start of 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Finding consistency has been a constant struggle for Casey Fossum throughout his tenure with the Devil Rays.

Take last season. During his last 11 starts he averaged 10.34 strikeouts per nine innings. And in four 2006 starts against the Red Sox, he pitched a 1.16 ERA and posted a 2-0 mark. Conversely, he experienced three outings where he could not get through the second inning.

In fairness to Fossum, injuries have dotted his time with the Rays. Last year, he had a two-week stay on the disabled list with a left-groin strain. He has had an ongoing back problem, and he missed the final month due to surgery to "clean up" his left shoulder. He finished the season at 6-6 with a 5.33 ERA in 25 starts.

"There were some good games and there were some games where I just couldn't get loose," Fossum said. "When I had my stuff, when I had my good fastball, I was successful."

Fossum won't make excuses about the effect his injuries had on his 2006 performance, but he can pinpoint several instances when the injuries were a factor.

"I can definitely say the games I couldn't get out of the second inning, the games were outside and it was cold those days, I just never got loose," Fossum said. "But that's what baseball's all about, [it's] learning to deal with stuff like that. And still, I was able to have some good starts toward the end."

Fossum began throwing right before Thanksgiving. In addition to getting his shoulder back up to speed, he's been working with the Rays trainers on the overall package.

"Preventative stuff, like working on my groin problem," Fossum said. "I think this season, the trainers know me a lot better. I know the last couple of years I've had a groin problem and this year, we started taking care of that from the beginning of the year. And I'm doing my back exercises. I think I'm doing everything I can to prevent injury and stay strong throughout the year."

The good news for the Rays is that Fossum feels good after the surgery and, though it's early in Spring Training, looks ahead of schedule. Manager Joe Maddon said Fossum appears to be throwing "free and easy" while new pitching coach Jim Hickey noted after seeing him throw Saturday: "If I would have seen Casey Fossum throw the ball today and not knowing his history, I would not have had any idea whatsoever he was injured."

Fossum credited the training staff for doing a "great job" of strengthening his shoulder.

"It's pretty strong right now," Fossum said. "I just couldn't get in a consistent arm slot last year. I would put my arm up there and sometimes it would go back to where it was supposed to, and other times it wouldn't -- that reflects on your control. Right now, it feels really loose and I feel like I'm going to be more consistent with my arm slot. Which translates into throwing strikes and putting the ball where you want to put it."

Fossum said he's probably a little behind.

"But I feel good, and that's the important thing," Fossum said. "I should definitely be ready for the season."

If Fossum indeed is ready for the season, he will pitch in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in the rotation. The left-hander likes the overall makeup of this year's rotation, which will include Scott Kazmir, Jae Seo and James Shields along with the winner of the sweepstakes for the No. 5 spot between Edwin Jackson, Brian Stokes, Tim Corcoran, J.P. Howell, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann.

"I think when we're all healthy things are going good," Fossum said. "We have a lot of young arms, who can battle out there. All the pieces are in place and we just have to build on what we did last year and improve on last year."

For his part, Fossum believes he can show improvement in 2006 if he locates his fastball and gets ahead of the hitters.

"I think I learned last year I can get ahead with my four-seamer and my curveball and put them away with my slider," Fossum said. "It's a basic plan I was going with last year, I threw a lot of curveballs to get ahead of the batter. Carrying that into this year, I think that will help me. Toward the end of the year, I was throwing my changeup in there a lot more and I was getting good results. It's all about getting the hitters out on fewer pitches."

Fossum's goal for the coming season sounds simple, but it's not an easy one to accomplish.

"I just want to throw as many innings as I can," he said. "I think if I throw a lot of innings, that means I'm being successful. I don't like setting goals, but if I get over 180 innings, that would be a good goal for me to shoot for. I don't think I've ever done that before. And obviously, if I throw that many innings, something is going right. I think it all comes down to me taking care of my body and my arm."

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