Spring Training: Youman cooking up surprise?

Strong early showing could put him in rotation mix

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Shane Youman, a self-described "pretty good cook," specializes in delicacies loved in his native Louisiana.

He can, with little effort, whip up a crawfish etouffee, jambalaya or gumbo. And his favorite, a right-to-the-bone mixture of red beans, rice and sausage.

Sounds exotic, except for that last part.

Sounds a bit like his pitching menu, too, come to think of it.

Youman, a 27-year-old rookie left-hander trying to work into the Pirates' rotation, tends to start out hitters with slowly prepared offerings. Maybe a curveball, usually his soup du jour. Or a changeup that is getting ordered more often these days. Or a biting slider.

The beans-and-rice pitch, of course, is the fastball. It is nothing fancy, rarely touching 90 mph, but it works well with the rest of the dish.

"Yeah, and it puts people to sleep, too, just like the beans and rice," Youman said, laughing. "That's still my anchor. I don't throw big-time heat like some guys but, no matter what else you do, it all comes down to how you locate the fastball. I make everything go off of that."

Well, there is the secret ingredient, too.

All of Youman's pitches come with an unusually high level of deception, meaning the nature of his delivery prevents hitters from seeing the ball until just before it leaves the hand.

"His release point is amazing," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "Those of us standing behind him in the field are the only ones who can see the ball."

So far, the reviews have been rave. In Youman's two Grapefruit League appearances, he has held opponents scoreless on four hits, a walk and two strikeouts over five innings.

And that, coupled with an impressive showing in his Pirates debut last September -- a 2.91 ERA in 21 2/3 innings, including three starts -- has management not ruling out that he could be part of the staff that makes the season-opening trip to Houston.

"Not at all," manager Jim Tracy said. "Shane Youman is very much in the mix."

If that sounds unlikely, it probably should not.

Consider that, although management spoke all offseason of having four young starters as fixtures -- Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny -- general manager Dave Littlefield never has guaranteed all four a spot out of spring training. Tony Armas Jr. and Shawn Chacon are said to be dueling for the fifth spot, but one or both could be beaten out. And there always is the possibility of injury.

To be sure, somewhere in there, Youman sees an open door.

"Yeah, I can make this team," he said. "As long as I keep taking steps in the same direction I've been going, I'll be on that roster April the 2nd."

That confidence comes despite some serious humbling in his baseball career.

He was a standout at New Iberia High School in Louisiana, but that made him no better than a 45th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He turned down the Dodgers and wound up helping Louisiana State University to the College World Series championship in 2000. But all that made him was a 43rd-round pick of the Pirates when he re-entered the draft.

He was a reliever in the minors and, once he reached the upper levels, was no better than mediocre. And, being 26 years old entering last season, the prospect clock was ticking.

Then, in late May, he was moved into the rotation at Class AA Altoona and never looked back. As a starter with the Curve and later after being promoted to Class AAA Indianapolis, he would go 9-1 with a 2.28 ERA.

Usually, it works the other way around.

"I know. It's always the starter who gets turned into the reliever," Youman said. "Honestly, I have no idea why I'm a better starter. I couldn't even explain it."

Pitching coach Jim Colborn can.

"The way baseball is now, the pitchers with the better stuff are relievers. And the ones who are starters bring the combination, even if they don't have any one outstanding pitch," Colborn said. "The more hitters see them, the more they should be confused."

And that is how it is with Youman?

"That's right."

The manager agreed.

"Our opinion of Shane Youman is nothing more than this: He can flat pitch," Tracy said. "And he has incredible poise."

Youman capped his 2006 with seven shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds in the Pirates' finale.

"There's been a lot of positive feedback from the front office and coaching staff since then, and it's given me that feeling, like, 'Yeah, I belong here.' " he said. "But the biggest thing is, now that I got a taste of it, it's made me a little more hungry."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Shane Youman has pitched well in two Grapefruit League games, allowing no runs and four hits in five innings.
Click photo for larger image.
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Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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