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An ex-Tiger cuts loose in the pen

The assignment was supposed to be temporary.

Eddie Gaillard was a so-so starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers' Class A Lakeland affiliate in 1994 when Rick Greene, a first-round draft choice, was sent down from Double A in need of some innings. The Tigers bumped Gaillard to the bullpen, telling him it would be only a two-week hitch.

Four years later, Gaillard still is pitching in relief. And it turns out to be the best move he ever made.

Body, fastball fill out

The former Florida Southern star, who had trouble lasting more than five or six innings as a starter, made a smooth transition to relief work. He saved 25 games the next season for Lakeland, proved his worth as a middle reliever at Double-A Jacksonville in 1996 and enjoyed the ultimate breakthrough last season, earning 28 saves at Triple-A Toledo and a promotion to the major leagues.

"I took to the bullpen pretty good," he said.

Gaillard (GAL-erd), who was waived by Detroit at the end of spring training and claimed by the Devil Rays, is hard-pressed to explain his success.

He was a 165-pound starting pitcher for the Mocs who won 12 games a season but threw a fastball no harder than 86-87 mph.

He was 22 when he started playing pro ball, but he still was growing and getting stronger. His velocity kept increasing. The little college kid now weighs 205 and throws a sinking fastball that he says tops out at 96 mph.

"It's gone up every year," Gaillard said. "Sometime it's going to have to stop. I'm not going to be throwing 100 miles an hour or anything like that. But every year it's progressively going up. So has my strength. And my mechanics and pitching have gotten better every year, along with my timing. I don't know how to explain it."

A mind as strong as his arm

Gaillard's arm was a major reason the Rays claimed him and promoted him to the majors last week when they expanded the staff to 12 after Wade Boggs was injured. But so was his mind-set.

"Two things stick out," Rays GM Chuck LaMar said, "arm strength and competitiveness."

Gaillard, 27, is like a number of Tampa Bay's other 10 rookies. He has had some minor-league success and the Rays want to find out if he is ready, and has the ability, to succeed in the big leagues.

Gaillard just is thankful for the opportunity.

He was drafted in the 50th round by the Tigers after his junior year, but turned down about a $20,000 bonus to stay in school and complete his degree in psychology.

So he had another good season at Lakeland's Florida Southern, but was a senior with no leverage. The Tigers took him in the 13th round but offered him only $2,000 to sign. It turned out to be a bargain.

"I guess from Day 1 when I first signed I had success, and after that I just expected to have it every year," Gaillard said. "I didn't have an off-year. I think that's the only reason I was still given a chance.

"Coming out and signing for two grand, you can't have a bad year."

"A numbers game'

Even though Gaillard led the International League in saves last season and pitched well in Detroit, the Tigers didn't have room for him in their bullpen this spring. Rather than send him back to Triple A, they did for him what amounted to a huge favor, putting him on waivers to allow him to be picked up by someone else.

Though he was glad to catch on with the Rays _ "I couldn't have come to a better spot," he said _ he was disappointed to leave the Tigers.

"I'd been with them for a long time. They were the team that gave me a shot," he said. "I don't know if another team would have drafted me my senior year. I really don't know.

"I made it to the big leagues with them and I was glad to be a Tiger. I wanted to stay. It's a numbers game. If you're not the closer or the main guy in the bullpen, there are going to be big-time prospects coming up and they're going to get your spot. That's what happened. Even though I pitched well for them in the big leagues (for nearly two months), sometimes it's a numbers game.

"I think they knew I could pitch and knew I could help their team. They didn't know if I'd get a chance to help their team."

As for Greene, the pitcher who inadvertently might have helped Gaillard's career more than anybody? He's pitching for Milwaukee's Triple-A team in Louisville. He and Gaillard remain best of friends. It's probably Gaillard's turn to buy.