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Three Tampa Bay Rays nonroster invitees driven to keep trying to return to majors

PORT CHARLOTTE — Though it was nearly five years ago, infielder J.J. Furmaniak remembers his big-league debut "as if it were yesterday."

Furmaniak, 30, was with the Pirates playing at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He was so nervous during warmups in the first inning that Furmaniak, at second, threw the ball over the first baseman's head.

But Furmaniak bounced back to double off Chris Carpenter in his third at-bat, and a dozen family members got to see it. "A fabulous moment," he said. "Something I'll never forget."

Though Furmaniak has played just 29 games in the majors in a 10-year professional career, it's those kinds of memories that keep him and other journeyman minor-leaguers coming to big-league camp even if they're long shots.

They are the players with high numbers on their jerseys who are primarily brought in to fill out the roster and play late in games when fans are typically spilling out of the stands.

But for Rays nonroster invitees such as Furmaniak, first baseman Ryan Shealy and left-hander Carlos Hernandez, they can't think of being anywhere else.

"You're just trying to create some more memories," Furmaniak said. "I have the drive, the fire, there's no reason to let up now."

• • •

There was a time when Hernandez was a budding star, a hard-throwing left-hander in the Astros organization.

That was in 2002, when Hernandez was part of a rotation with Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. But by September, Hernandez had to be shut down because of shoulder problems. Three shoulder surgeries and six years later, he was considering shutting himself down — for good.

"I thought about retirement, because sometimes it was pretty frustrating not to be able to go out there and do what you're supposed to do," he said. "But I got a lot of support from my family that helped me keep trying."

Hernandez, 29, entered camp last spring as a candidate for the fifth rotation spot. He didn't get it, but he proved he was healthy, making 21 starts for Triple-A Durham.

"This guy's a major-league pitcher," manager Joe Maddon said.

Though Hernandez hasn't thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2004, he's a lefty, so — if healthy — he can be a valuable commodity. He points to his left arm, saying, "I'm going to play as long as this baby can hold it."

"It's a good feeling being part of a major-league team, having a uniform on; it's something I really don't want to let go," he said. "I was there already. That's why I want to keep trying. It's never too late."

• • •

At 6 feet 5 and 240 pounds, Shealy's body befits one of a slugging, big-league first baseman.

Shealy, 30, had an impressive career at the University of Florida, setting a single-season record in RBIs (80) and hitting 23 homers in 2002. In the minors, he's a career .311 hitter.

His biggest problem? Staying on the field. Shealy has suffered his fair share of injuries, from an elbow to the left knee, which blew out in May and required microfracture surgery. The injury came when Shealy, hitting .345 for Triple-A Omaha, was hoping for another shot in the majors. Instead, he got heartbreak.

"Last year was probably one of the toughest mentally and physically," he said.

Healthy now, Shealy hopes to stay that way and show he can play at the next level.

"I think anybody that's been in the big leagues will tell you that, once you taste it, you want to keep trying to get there and stay there," said Shealy, who had seven homers and 20 RBIs in 20 games with the Royals in 2008. "We've seen guys make it all the way back to the big leagues, even from independent ball.

"As long as you're wearing a uniform, you have a chance."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Three Tampa Bay Rays nonroster invitees driven to keep trying to return to majors 03/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 11:47pm]

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