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Arizona Fall League Notebook

by Jack Magruder
October 21, 2003

MARYVALE, Ariz.--When Team USA called this fall, Atlanta made the connection.

The Braves, often reluctant to entrust their pitchers to anyone outside the realm, this time may sport three-fifths of the rotation when the U.S. participates in the Olympic qualifying tournament in two weeks.

Though the U.S. is the defending Olympic gold medallist, it must finish first or second in the qualifying tournament, scheduled for Oct. 30-Nov.11 in Panama City, Panama, to earn the right to defend its title.

Braves lefthander Horacio Ramirez, eligible for the U.S. team when Atlanta and general manager John Schuerholz did some roster shuffling at the Aug. 31 playoff roster deadline, will be the No. 1 starter and would rather be nowhere else.

"Mr. Schuerholz gave me a call (after the Cubs eliminated Atlanta in the National League Division Series) and asked if I was interested in still playing," Ramirez said. "I said definitely. Not everybody gets the opportunity to represent their country, and I just pounced on it."

Ramirez, 12-4, 4.00 as a rookie this year, moved to the top of a very deep talent pool after the Braves assigned him to the minor leagues in order to add a catcher to the major league roster in September. Ramirez was in the minors just three days, not even long enough to miss a start, but since he was not on a 25-man roster Aug. 31--the determining criteria--he was fair game.

"You better believe it was a no-brainer," Team USA manager Frank Robinson said. "He was willing to play, and that was surprising and another nice thing to hear. The first day he got here he was sick. I didn't think he could come out for three or four days, but he was out there the next day and throw a bullpen.

"He brings experience, and it's major league experience. He has good stuff. He has a good arm. He shouldn't be overwhelmed by this competition. He could set the tone for the staff."

Ramirez and righthander Justin Duchscherer (Athletics) appear to have spots in the rotation locked up as Team USA played its final exhibition games against teams in the Arizona Fall League, but the other spots had yet to be determined. Duchscherer gave up just three hits in his first nine innings before missing a start because of the flu.

Braves prospects Adam Wainwright and Andy Pratt are among a strong group of rotation candidates that includes Phillies righthander Ryan Madson, Indians lefty Jason Stanford and Pirates righty John VanBenschoten. Twins righthander J.D. Durbin has the best arm of any pitcher in camp, but is on a pitch limit because he threw 182 innings in the regular season and probably will be used out of the bullpen.

Ramirez, 24, had Tommy John surgery early in 2001 and opened the 2002 season on a rehab assignment before shining the second half of the season at Double-A Greenville, going 9-5, 3.03. He continued his success this season and finished strong, going 3-0 with four quality starts in September.

"I was real excited about coming out here and playing to represent the country," said Ramirez, a 1997 fifth-round draftee out of Inglewood (Calif.) High. "I've been having so much fun since coming off Tommy John surgery. My arm feels great. I'm having so much fun playing ball."

"He won 12 games as a rookie in the big leagues, and that's doing pretty dog-gone good," Team USA pitching coach Dave Stewart said. "We definitely need that type of performer, and we also need that kind of leadership."

Stewart must build his rotation around the two most important games of the qualifying event, the quarterfinal (Nov. 8 or Nov. 9) and semifinal games (Nov. 10) of the single-elimination round. Three teams out of seven--the others in Team USA's group are the Bahamas, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico--will advance from pool play.

"You have to set it up just like you would for the playoffs," said Stewart, who participated in many of those.

Wainwright, Atlanta's first-round pick in 2000 and No. 1 prospect, started the opener in Team USA's 12-game tour of the Arizona Fall League after going 10-8, 3.37 for Greenville this season. Wainwright has never given up more hits than innings in any of his four summer seasons, but after taking a month off he had trouble getting into an early groove for Team USA, giving up six runs in his first six innings.

"I am really looking forward to this," he said. "I hope I make this team, because this is a great opportunity for me to get out there and play against some great competition and get some world experience, too. It would be fun to go over there and represent my country. Hopefully I can get back to where I left off."

Stewart sees a bright future for the 6-foot-6, 205-pound Wainwright.

"There is no doubt in my mind he is going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time," Stewart said. "He has a good arm, a real good arm. He has a great frame. He has good makeup. Very, very competitive. For me, I'd like to see him trust his stuff a little bit more. With his type of stuff . . . he puts himself in situations he shouldn't be in. Once he starts to trust his ability and his stuff, he is going to be an outstanding major league pitcher."

Pratt struck out 161 in 156 innings while going 7-10, 3.40 at Richmond this season and if he does not make the rotation could be a valuable lefthanded arm out of a bullpen.

"I tell you what, he's sneaky," Stewart said. "He has very, very good stuff."

FALL GUYS

Team USA's Graham Koonce (A's) had a five-hit game Oct. 17 and had 10 hits in his first 16 at-bats in the Fall League series.

Scottsdale second baseman Scott Hairston (Diamondbacks) had back-to-back three-hit games the third weekend of the season, finished a triple short of the cycle when the Scorpions ended Team USA's six-game winning streak Oct. 18 with a 7-5 victory. Hairston had three singles, two RBIs and a stolen base in a victory over the Peoria Saguaros the day before.

Grand Canyon righthander Henry Bonilla (Twins) threw five shutout innings Oct. 18, giving up two hits and striking out three, the first starting pitcher to go five innings.

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