PORT CHARLOTTE — With opening day just over a week away, the Rays are still looking at different options to replace injured setup man J.P. Howell.
There's a chance the winner of the four-man competition for the open spot — be it Joaquin Benoit, Dale Thayer, Mike Ekstrom or long shot Heath Rollins — could step into a more meaningful role. And there's a possibility executive vice president Andrew Friedman finds the solution, landing an experienced reliever through a waiver claim or trade.
But what the Rays may be looking at — and at this point seemingly are — is this: Lance Cormier pitching in key late-inning situations.
"Probably going to be a little bit more meaningful outs than last year, maybe more of a higher-leverage type of a situation," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He's certainly going to have to do that at least until J.P. gets back."
For Cormier, it will be a significant increase in responsibility.
The 29-year-old right-hander has spent most of his big-league career as a mediocre starter and a middling middle reliever (career 5.53 earned-run average through 2008), and last season was the first in which he didn't spend some time in the minors.
For most of his 197 career relief appearances, Cormier has pitched in the safety of middle innings or with his team way ahead or behind.
Of his 53 appearances last season, only nine came in the eighth or ninth inning with no more than a two-run difference. And most of those were late in the season, after Howell tired and the Rays had dropped out of contention.
Still, Cormier said he got enough of a sense of the added responsibilities to know what he has to do differently, such as wait longer to get mentally and physically prepared. And, more important, what he doesn't, such as adjusting his approach because of the situation.
"If I change the way I pitch, then I'm going to affect the type of pitcher I am, so I can't affect that by doing that," Cormier said. "I'm not going to say the pressure's not there, because obviously it's a different thing that you're not used to. But who knows. After the first two series of the year, you might be in four, five games like that, and you're going to be like, 'Okay, whatever … now that's just our job.' "
Maybe it will be that easy. Maybe Cormier — whose five-pitch arsenal features a cut fastball that makes him effective against tough lefty hitters (with improvement needed against right-handers) — will make a smooth transition, joining Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour as part of the setup committee in front of closer Rafael Soriano.
Or maybe, with stakes higher, the margin for error slimmer and the cheers from the crowd louder, Cormier will feel the difference — literally feel it in the pit of his stomach — as Wheeler did when he made a similar move earlier in his career.
"It was tense," Wheeler said. "The first couple times when I was actually pitching in a game and it was a tie game or a one-run lead, there was some tension. I was like, 'Well, what am I made of?' "
The challenge can be daunting. "By no means is it easy to record the 17th, 18th, 19th outs of a game," Hickey said, "but it certainly becomes more difficult when you're talking about the 22nd, 23rd, 24th."
Not that they have many other options anyway, but Hickey and manager Joe Maddon say they see a difference in Cormier — beyond his career-best 3.26 ERA from last season — that has them comfortable calling for him with the game in the balance.
"He's turned into much more than just an early game, long (reliever) kind of a guy," Maddon said. "I have no problem with him on the right matchup for him at any time in the game. Compared to last year, the way he walks around the clubhouse, the way he interacts with me, the confidence has really soared. I really anticipate another good year out of him."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]