Rauch not resting on past success

Rauch not resting on past success

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Nationals manager Manny Acta recently raved about reliever Jon Rauch. The skipper said Rauch's confidence is sky-high and his fastball has more behind it.

But Rauch doesn't take anything for granted. In fact, he feels like he's fighting for a spot on the Nationals' 25-man roster. It's sounds silly coming from a guy who was arguably the team's best reliever in 2006.

"When you start relaxing on your laurels and thinking, 'I have it made,' you lose sight of things," Rauch said. "I still want to go out there and still try to show them that I can still do the job."

As a setup man, Rauch, 28, did the job in a big way last year. He appeared in team-leading 85 games, had 18 holds and a respectable 3.35 ERA. Most important, it was the first time Rauch stayed on a Major League roster for a full season and the first time since the 2002 season that he avoided the disabled list.

Rauch also finally found his niche in the game. During the first seven years in professional baseball, Rauch was considered a starter with great potential, but injuries and inconsistency stood in the way of him staying in the big leagues for a long period of time.

But Rauch found out that pitching a couple of innings per game was better than throwing six or seven.

"[It was a relief] to know that I was available every day, and [it was a relief] to compete and not have to worry in the back of my mind that I might do something to my arm," Rauch said. "It was kind of calming to just concentrate on pitching."

Rauch's success as a reliever didn't stop general manager Jim Bowden from asking him to be part of the rotation during the second half of the '06 season. The Nationals desperately needed starters because staff ace John Patterson was out with a pinched nerve in his right forearm and Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr. and Mike O'Connor were inconsistent on the mound.

As a member of the Nationals/Expos, Rauch has developed a reputation of being consistent in the strike zone, so the team thought he would be a perfect fit. But Rauch respectfully declined because he didn't have any health issues as a reliever.

"It was definitely a compliment when people look at you and think that you could do the job as a starter," Rauch said. "At the same time, with the year I was having, when they approached me about it, I felt that it would be best for me to stay in the bullpen, because I was helping the team in that spot.

"I have doubts about the longevity as a starter, considering the arm problems that I've had in the past. I have the confidence knowing that in a bullpen role, I can go out there and be available when they need me. If I go out and take up a starting spot and vacate the bullpen, if I go down, then I'm not going to help the team at all. At that time, I was thinking long term. 'What role would I best be suited for to help he team win games?' I think, at that time, I decided that the bullpen role would be it."

There was a possibility that Rauch's role out of the bullpen would get even bigger in 2007. There were reports throughout the offseason that right-hander Chad Cordero would be traded to a contending team and that either Rauch or Ryan Wagner would be the closer. It's the Nationals' belief that they could find a closer much easier than a starter.

Rauch said he didn't pay attention to the reports about a possible Cordero trade and declined to answer if he is ready to become a closer.

"I'm going to say it this way: Until it happens, I don't think about it, plain and simple," Rauch said. "There is so much that is said in the paper and so much that you read and see on TV. I don't take stock in it until it actually happens. When it happens, then you can come ask me if I can do it.

"Until then, [Cordero] is our closer. I don't see any other guy filling those shoes anytime soon."

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