Astros lefty has eyes on bullpen spot

KISSIMMEE, FL That could be because of the rigors the 23-year-old left-hander endured from his older brothers in backyard games growing up in Alabama.

"They used to play catch out in the yard and they would always make him strike them out," his father Willie Wright said of his other sons, now 31 and 27. "I think that was a foundation for where he is today because he had to work real hard to strike them out. It made him tough."

Wright was a long shot to end up on the Houston Astros roster this season, but as spring training draws to a close the baby-faced player has become a top contender for a spot in the bullpen.

A Rule 5 draftee, if Wright is not kept on Houston's 25-man roster all season he must be offered back to the Los Angeles Dodgers for half of the $50,000 fee the Astros paid to get him.

Manager Cecil Cooper has been impressed with his work and said he's been the biggest surprise of the spring.

"I've really liked his composure this spring," Cooper said. "He's eager to learn. He's turning out to be somebody who could help us."

Wright's chances of making the team increased on Wednesday when Houston optioned Mark McLemore to Triple-A Round Rock and reassigned Stephen Randolph to minor league camp, leaving him as the only left-handed reliever on the roster.

The left-hander has been sharp this spring, allowing one three hits and two runs in eight innings over eight games. He's walked six and struck out five. He's struggled with his command in the past, but has been more consistent in that area this year.

"I've learned a lot, and the main thing is I've been able to execute some of the things I've learned," he said. "Veteran pitchers have been able to help me a lot with my preparation."

Perhaps the only trouble he's had this spring is enduring teasing from his teammates because of his youthful appearance.

"He looks like he's about 12 years old," Cooper said with a laugh.

Wright split last season between Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A Las Vegas. He was 6-2 with a 2.49 ERA in 30 games for Jacksonville. He didn't fare as well in Triple-A where he was 1-2 with a 9.18 ERA in 14 games.

Wright, who was picked in the seventh round of the 2003 draft out of high school, spent four years in the Dodgers minor league system before the Astros picked him in December. He said it's been a bit of a whirlwind since then, and his excitement is building now that he's so close to making the team.

"When I was in Double-A last year I never would have thought I'd be here in this moment," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunity I have right now. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it will be a little disappointing but I've still learned a lot where I think I'll be back somewhere eventually."

Wright seemed a bit nervous in his first outing this spring but has grown more confident each time out. He hasn't allowed a hit or run in his last five outings.

"He's just bubbling with confidence now," Cooper said. "He has gone at hitters. He has been very consistent."

Wright credits his success this spring to learning from Houston's veterans and to his maturation and focus.

"I haven't had those mental lapses where you're not really ready that day," he said. "I've just been trying to be prepared for anything every day."

Wright is trying not to worry about whether he'll make the team, but he gets a daily reminder of his quest from a phone call from his parents in Alabama.

"I think they're more anxious about it than I am," he said. "I don't even think about it too much. I think earlier I was thinking about it a little bit too much. Now I'm just focused on trying to get outs. I know what I have to do to stay here."

His parents traveled to Florida this weekend to see Wright play for the Astros for the first time. He was strong, throwing a hitless and scoreless inning with one strikeout on Saturday. The performance prompted home plate umpire Laz Diaz to comment to Cooper on what a 'lively arm' Wright has.

His parents, Willie and Ruby Wright, beamed and raved about their son after that performance.

"We all have dreams and this is one of his dreams," Willie Wright said. "He's just so close to his dreams coming true. It's just an awesome feeling."

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