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Rupe seems to have edge for the No. 5 starter spot

Anything can happen in a week.

Though his manager has all but said he will be in the starting rotation when the season starts next month, Ryan Rupe isn't celebrating a personal victory yet.

"In this game, if you ever feel complacent it's over," he said. "It can be so humbling."

Rupe learned as much last season when he started off in the rotation and then pitched his way into the bullpen and then to Triple A.

All before the end of May.

Later recalled from Durham, he finished with a 5-12 record, a 6.59 ERA in a career-high 143 innings for the Rays. And with no guarantee he would be in the rotation this spring.

Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson, Joe Kennedy and Nick Bierbrodt were shoo-ins for the rotation based on their performance last season, but Rupe needed to outduel Wilson Alvarez for the fifth spot.

"I think competition is good for anyone," pitching coach Jackie Brown said. "I don't care if it's Rupe, Sturtze, Wilson, Wilson (Alvarez) or whoever it is. I think it's good to know that there's someone pushing them and there's someone right behind them. I think that's good for any pitcher in the big leagues."

Had it not been for Bierbrodt's sudden lack of control and subsequent removal from the rotation for an unspecified period of time, Rupe likely would not be in the somewhat comfortable position he is today as the tentative fifth starter.

"We've had some legitimate competition there for the fifth starter," manager Hal McRae said. "We knew the first four guys were in. So it was him and Wilson Alvarez and who else we could come up with."

He didn't just luck into his spot.

After an offseason in which he didn't throw off a mound in an attempt to rest his arm, Rupe entered camp focused and asked Brown about trying a new two-seam fastball almost immediately.

"For me to be an effective starter in this league," he said, "I need this pitch."

Rupe is adding the pitch because he'd lost movement on his four-seam fastball two years ago after a blood clot was discovered just above his right biceps. In an attempt to protect his arm and shoulder, Rupe and then manager Larry Rothschild decided Rupe no longer should throw across his body.

"As you get older it can take a toll on your shoulder," he said. "I needed to take some stress off my shoulder. Larry and I straightened myself. In doing so, I lost the movement and location.

"At the time I was too stubborn to throw (a two-seamer). I wanted that four-seamer to sink again. But it wouldn't."

Though he's slowly gaining trust in the pitch, which dives down and in to a right-handed batter, it's a work in progress.

"He still needs to use his four-seam fastball," Brown said. "He's not a sinkerball pitcher at this point, but that's what he can turn into. He's got to learn how to use the sinker, where to throw it. He's not used to the movement of it."

Rupe also realizes there's no room to relax because two other right-handers _ Delvin James and Travis Harper _ are eager for his spot.

Having spent the past six seasons developing from linebacker to hard-throwing pitcher in the Rays' farm system, James can sense he's as close as ever to getting the call.

"They've given me the opportunity to go out and pitch," James said. "That's really all you can look for when it comes to spring training. Some guys don't really get a chance to show what they can do.

"I think I've done a pretty good job of showing them through my performance on the field, showing them where I'm at this point in time."

What ultimately makes the decision easy for the Rays is that Rupe has thrown well _ 15 strikeouts, four walks, 3.38 ERA in 16 innings _ is healthy and already is on the 25-man roster.

James has options left and could be sent to Triple-A Durham to start the season. Harper is a non-roster invite, meaning the Rays would have to move somebody off the 25-man to accommodate for him.

"I knew I had to pitch well to make the team," Rupe said. "That's the way it should be."