PORT CHARLOTTE — In an exuberant and often quirky Rays clubhouse, reliever Brandon Gomes is the quieter type.
Gomes, 28, will bury his head in the latest thrilling historical novel by Ken Follett, expecting to finish Fall of Giants in the next few weeks. In his downtime, he'll catch up on his crosswords.
Gomes, a Tulane graduate, thought about attending law school, taking the LSAT after one of his first minor-league seasons. He said he scored in the 68th percentile, which would have got him into some "pretty good" schools.
"It was just a backup plan," Gomes said, smiling. "It's probably a non-issue now."
That's because Gomes has a future in the Rays bullpen, having established himself over parts of the past two seasons. Gomes may not be there on opening day, even though he had a terrific spring. He's likely the odd man out to veteran right-hander Jamey Wright.
But Gomes, healthy and confident, expects to impact Tampa Bay at some point this season, having regained the health and form that he showed in a spectacular September as a rookie in 2011. He has allowed two runs in 101/3 innings with 11 strikeouts and no walks this spring, leading manager Joe Maddon to say he has had one of the best camps.
"He's going to be such a big part of what we're going to do this year — and in the future," Maddon said. "Beyond his skills, this guy is such a great teammate, everybody loves having him there. If you take the Brandon Gomeses of the world, if in fact they don't make a team coming out of spring training, they will impact, and when their time comes, they stay for a long time."
Gomes attributed his strong spring to a regular offseason of training. He had back surgery before the 2012 season, when he battled inconsistencies in five different stints with the Rays. He said he didn't feel the same life behind the ball until September, when he allowed just one run in five outings.
"I feel great," Gomes said. "I'm feeling as good as I ever felt, if not better. It's just another year of experience under my belt. And I have a little more confidence from starting to understand the game better, talking to different pitchers and all the guys on staff on how to attack hitters."
Though Gomes, just 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, doesn't reach the high 90s with his fastball, he has never been afraid of going after guys. There are stories of his high school days in Fall River, Mass., when Gomes would tell hitters he was throwing a fastball — then whip it by them.
"When I've thrown well, and when I've struggled a bit, that's really the main factor is I stay aggressive and not worrying so much about making the perfect pitch, but attacking hitters," Gomes said.
Gomes said he has believed he belonged since late in his rookie year in 2011, when — pitching in a pennant race — he finished with 11 straight scoreless appearances. "That's a lot of experience for a first-year guy," he said. "That was huge."
The Rays appear to be leaning toward keeping Wright (6.30 ERA), having to tell the sinkerballer by today's deadline whether they're putting him on 25-man roster (or DL), release him or pay him a $100,000 retention bonus to go to the minors.
But Gomes doesn't worry about the "outside factors," concentrating on his pitching, or flipping pages in his book.
"When I'm working, I'm working, whether it be prior to the game or on the mound," Gomes said. "And, other than that, have a good time. This clubhouse promotes that."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]