- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | There is a ranch on his grandparents’ land in south Texas where Garrett Mock likes to hunt. It’s nothing special - mostly white-tailed deer, the occasional axis deer - but it has a black-and-white nature that Mock has come to embrace.

“Either you make the shot or you’re not eating,” he said.

His approach to baseball never used to be that way. As a starting pitcher, there was time to set up one pitch with another, a series of steps in the intricate dance between batter and hurler. It gave him time to try things out and establish an agenda.

Those days are over, at least for the moment. Now it’s back to the black-and-white - take the ball, use whatever pitch works and get the hitter out.

“I’m still in the process of rating my pitches out,” Mock said. “As a starter, I have a game plan going the first time through the lineup. As a reliever, I don’t have the opportunity to establish anything. I don’t have time to figure out ‘Do I have a change-up? Do I have a curveball?’ It’s whatever I have. I’ve got one pitch to figure it out.”

Mock has been competing for a spot in the Nationals’ bullpen all spring, and it appears that’s where his future in the organization lies. Among Washington’s top starter prospects at the beginning of last year, the right-hander moved into a relief role late last year, and it’s there that his major league career might find some traction.

He has made seven appearances this spring, the most on the team, and has a 4.50 ERA in eight innings. Mock worked the ninth inning Monday against the Marlins, earning a save in a 3-1 Nationals victory.

The Nationals are being coy about where or if Mock might fit into their as-of-yet unformed bullpen. Mock’s last two appearances have been in the ninth inning, but manager Manny Acta said that does not mean he’s the front-runner for the eighth-inning job Acta hopes to fill by the end of the spring.

But it’s clear he’s getting every opportunity to make the team.

“Mock’s got the stuff to pitch up here and pitch up here successfully,” Acta said. “It’s a matter of consistency. This guy has the stuff. He just needs to start pitching like it.”

He certainly left a better impression on the Nationals in the bullpen than as a starter last year. In three spot starts, Mock gave up 12 earned runs in 15 innings. In 23 relief appearances, it was seven earned runs in 26 innings.

Those results hinted at the promise the Nationals feel Mock has as a reliever - a four-pitch arsenal and a big frame that could make him a Jon Rauch-style setup man or even a closer.

Mixing pitches always has been a big part of Mock’s repertoire, and he said the toughest thing about being a reliever is learning to cull his pitches based on what has worked in precious little warmup time. But if he can throw all four (fastball, curveball, slider and change-up), he presents a late-inning challenge that hitters don’t often face.

“At some point, he can definitely be a good setup guy,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “His mental makeup and the command of his pitches will decide whether he can even maybe step up and close some games. But he’s got very good stuff.”

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo said he still feels Mock’s future is as a starter, just as he did when he selected Mock with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third round of the 2004 draft.

For now, however, he thinks Mock could prepare for a starting role by being a late-inning reliever.

“In the past, you could often get players ready for the starting rotation in the bullpen,” Rizzo said. “He’s got the stuff to be a starter, but right now he’s a big part of our bullpen.”

The Nationals’ quandary with placing Mock is that he might be too versatile; he can pitch multiple innings, which might make him a long reliever, but his fastball has enough bite and his other pitches are good enough that he could be better suited for the late innings.

There’s also the matter of how he handles the switch.

Before last season, Mock had never pitched in relief, save for a few all-star games at various levels. He’s quick to start into a story or show his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the chance to be in a big league camp. He’s not exactly the archetype of the sullen, stormy setup man Rauch was.

If Mock has a preference, though, it’s that open eighth-inning job.

He’s attracted to it for the same reason he loves hunting - the uncomplicated nature of entering a tight game or a tenuous situation knowing he will be judged only on his ability to get the hitter out.

“Me and [first-base coach] Marquis Grissom were talking about this: It’s that situation where there is no gray area,” Mock said. “It’s either people are screaming, cheering, you win, we kept the lead or we lose. It’s so cut-and-dried.”

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