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For Arrojo, it is time to deliver

Published Sep. 12, 2005

Rolando Arrojo has had 10 months of assimilation, time to adapt to the lifestyle, the customs, the food, the American style of play.

Now the Cuban defector faces the most important adjustment _ proving he belongs in the major leagues.

A slot in the Devil Rays' rotation is reserved for him, but he needs to show this spring that he is worthy. That the hype generated by his $7-million signing bonus was not overblown. That the mediocre minor-league numbers were not indicative of his major-league future.

"I like this. The fact that they are counting on me will make me play better," Arrojo, 29, said through a Times interpreter. "At a higher level there will be better quality. I'm used to that. For many years playing internationally in Cuba, that was the situation. The coaches would tell me, "It's your turn, you have to do it,' and I did it. So I'm used to that type of pressure."

The Devil Rays know adjustments will continue in the spring and into the regular season, both on the field and off. Everything from the stadiums to the travel to the hotels will be new, as will be the intimidating prospect of facing Frank Thomas and Albert Belle back to back with the bases loaded.

"He's going to be tested," pitching coach Rick Williams said.

At Arrojo's first Devil Rays workout in May, general manager Chuck LaMar said the right-hander was talented enough to pitch in the major leagues that night.

But while other international phenoms such as Hideki Irabu were hurried along, the Rays were in a position to afford Arrojo the chance to get comfortable.

They gave him time to get settled in his new environment, and now he has his wife and children with him, has bought a house and has learned how to drive.

And they brought him along slowly on the mound.

He pitched for St. Petersburg in the Class A Florida State League with mixed results. He looked dominating on some nights, or at least in some innings on some nights. Others he looked unimpressive and a bit bored. He went 5-6 with a 3.43 earned-run average in 16 regular-season starts, but he won twice in the playoffs.

He then went to the Arizona Fall League, where the competition included top Double-A and Triple-A prospects, and turned his game up, posting a 5-0 record and 1.38 ERA.

"I think that the level of competition forced me to be better; there was more quality and it was more interesting, so that made me pitch better," Arrojo said. "I think that personally, when there is a higher level of play and competition, I concentrate more without even realizing it, and therefore my level of pitching increases. Pitching in Arizona was more important (than in Class A), so I concentrated more and I did better."

That is exactly the attitude the Rays like, and precisely the reason they are confident he will succeed.

"Really, the last step in his development on the way to the major leagues is how he handles the major leagues," LaMar said. "Whether his development to this point was in Cuba or in our minor-league system, you just don't know until that player has the opportunity to perform against major-league hitters in front of major-league fans and be on a major-league club. "I know he's unique, but he still has to be thought of as a prospect and everybody has to go from that prospect stage to the player stage, and that is handling the major leagues. We have every reason to believe Rolando Arrojo will handle that situation extremely well and be very successful."

The checkpoints will come quickly. How he handles himself around the clubhouse and in the mundane early spring drills. In live batting practice. And, most significant to Rays coaches, in the exhibition games.

"It's not 45,000 screaming Devil Rays fans and it's not pitching in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park," LaMar said, "but it starts here."

Coaches are eager to see how he handles success, how he rebounds from a rough outing, how he makes the necessary adjustments to get batters out. "There's going to be a learning curve," manager Larry Rothschild said.

Teammates are curious, too.

"There's definitely some anticipation to see him out there pitching," third baseman Wade Boggs said. "I want to see what type of competitor he is, how he goes about getting people out, and the presence he has."

LaMar said that in his mind, Arrojo is a major-leaguer. Arrojo said he is trying to feel comfortable, to feel that he belongs. He keeps mostly to himself in the clubhouse _ though locker mates Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez are trying to help _ and says humbly his goal this spring is just to make the team.

But press him and he admits what he really is looking forward to is his first regular-season start, to the day that will make his whole journey worthwhile.

"It's the wish of a lifetime, no?" Arrojo said. "Everything I think about, everything I've been working for my whole life is about that one day."