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Bierbrodt finally finds spot: No. 3 in rotation

Maybe, just maybe, Devil Rays pitcher Nick Bierbrodt now will be known for something other than being the baseball player who almost was killed in a random shooting.

Attempting to take the most crucial moment of his life and turn it into a footnote, Bierbrodt did something Friday he considers more momentous than taking a couple of bullets to the chest. He all but locked down a spot in the starting rotation of a major-league team.

If that's the case, then three-fifths of the starting rotation is set, with the fourth and fifth spots still open. On Thursday, manager Lou Piniella named Joe Kennedy his opening-day starter, and Victor Zambrano as the No. 2 starter.

With the enthusiastic comments of Piniella still echoing through Progress Energy Park, Bierbrodt appeared to have claimed a spot in the rotation after pitching four dominant innings of two-hit, shutout ball against the Twins in a 3-2 loss.

"We're looking for Bierbrodt to make our rotation," Piniella said before the game.

He was looking in the right direction. Bierbrodt, a 24-year-old left-hander with 11 major-league starts two seasons ago, met Piniella's expectations by limiting the defending American League Central champions to two singles and two walks.

"Everything was working," Bierbrodt said.

While Piniella was too spittin' mad to offer much commentary after another Rays loss, he did take a moment to compliment Bierbrodt.

"He keeps getting better," pitching coach Chris Bosio added. "He was real crisp again. He's starting to pick it up more and more."

Until now, Bierbrodt, slated to be in the rotation last season before struggling with control, was best known for that nightmarish night in June when he was shot twice while sitting in the drive-through of a fast-food place in Charleston, S.C. He started throwing four months later with two bullets still lodged in his liver.

"This has been my goal all along," Bierbrodt said. "This is the whole reason I was working out."

All that now, though, can be put to rest as far as Bierbrodt is concerned.

"I've already put a lid on it," Bierbrodt said of his brush with death. "I've moved on. But (a spot in the rotation) would be a nice start to this year. I'll look at it this way: a new start."

While Bierbrodt doesn't lack confidence, he wasn't ready to call himself a member of the rotation, even after being told of Piniella's comments.

"I'll believe it when I see it or hear it from him," Bierbrodt said. "But you definitely want that guy (Piniella) in your corner."

Bierbrodt hasn't allowed an earned run this spring. In nine innings, he has surrendered three hits and one unearned run with four strikeouts and five walks. Eight of the Twins' 12 outs against Bierbrodt on Friday came on ground balls.

"It's the best I've felt in a long time," Bierbrodt said.

Piniella's assignment now is to turn up two other starters to fill out the rotation. The leading candidates are Jim Parque, Steve Parris, Dewon Brazelton and Jason Standridge. Piniella hinted Friday that Parque might have the inside track for one of the spots.

"We like the way Parque has been throwing the ball in camp," Piniella said.

Meantime, Brazelton and Standridge offer promise, while Parris provides experience. Piniella said he wants a "couple of veterans" on the staff. With 122 starts in the majors, Parris, 35, would have more experience than any Rays starter, though he could fit well as a long reliever.

Piniella likely will have the rotation lined up by the end of next week. Kennedy is scheduled to start Friday and on March 26, and then opening day on March 31. Zambrano is set for March 22 and 27. The rest of the rotation will fall in line after that.

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