- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Jon Rauch was never supposed to be a relief pitcher, certainly not one of the most durable in baseball.

Rauch came up through the minor leagues as a starter. He arrived in the majors in 2002 as a starter. As recently as spring training 2005, he was still in the running for a spot in the Washington Nationals’ rotation.

And then a shoulder injury left the right-hander sidelined for 3½ months, and when he was ready to return, team officials decided he would be better served working his way back as a reliever.

Little did they know how well that decision would pay off. These days, Rauch is a mainstay in the Nationals’ bullpen as the reliable setup man in front of closer Chad Cordero.

No pitcher in baseball had as many appearances as Rauch’s 88 in 2007, nor has anyone matched his two-year total of 173.

Rauch is mystified by the turn of events.

“Obviously, it just works. I can’t really give you an explanation,” he said. “I just know I’m comfortable in [that role]. I know I like the possibility of being out there every day. That’s more enjoyable to me than being a starter and sitting down four out of five days. Whatever it is, I just seem more suited to this.”

Once known around the sport more as a novelty — at 6-foot-11, he remains the tallest player in big league history — Rauch has since made a name for himself based on his performance.

He posted an ERA under 3.62 each of the last three seasons. He led Washington with 18 holds in 2006, then nearly doubled the total last year with 33 while also leading the staff with eight wins.

“It’s real comforting when he comes into a game,” Cordero said. “I know whenever we have a lead going into the eighth, it’s a great feeling. He doesn’t give up a lot.”

The early portion of Rauch’s career was defined by injuries, mostly to his right shoulder, which twice was operated on for torn labrums. In a way, though, those injuries helped him find his true calling.

While rehabbing his shoulder, Rauch would throw a small number of pitches on an every-other-day basis. That helped build up his resiliency and allowed him to pitch four or five times a week in short spurts.

“I never have the aches and pains that I did when I was a starter,” he said. “I think I had enough injuries in the middle of [my career] for my body to actually adjust and get used to it.”

Rauch prefers to pitch as often as possible.

“He’s a workhorse,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s a guy that if two days he’s not in the game, right away he comes to me and asks me if everything is OK. He likes being out there. He takes pride in being out there over 80 times a season.”

There’s more to it than that, though.

“I take pride in the fact that they’re confident in me to give me the ball in close games and close situations whenever they need outs,” Rauch said. “I’ve always been a guy that wants the ball, regardless of what the situation is.”

Rauch’s consistent work over the last two seasons is earning him recognition around the majors and also within the Washington front office. Eligible for arbitration this offseason for the first time, Rauch wound up negotiating and signing a two-year, $3.2 million extension, the first sizeable contract of his career.

“I think it’s what every player dreams about, getting a contract that’s guaranteed,” he said. “We’re just glad we got it done.”

Physical and financial success hasn’t changed Rauch as a person. Beneath the intimidating exterior lies a soft-spoken, family man who gets more excited talking about his 2-year-old daughter, Aubrey, and a second daughter due to be born in April than he does talking about baseball.

He’s a simple man who has a simple view on life. He comes to work every day, does his job and then heads home to his family.

Ask him to spell out his goals for 2008 and he insists he doesn’t have set numbers in mind. But based on his upward trend the last two seasons, it seems appropriate to wonder whether he’s capable of reaching the 90-game mark this year.

“However often they need me,” Rauch said. “Just give me the ball.”

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