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Rapp Hoping to Pick Up Where He Left Off

February 28, 1996

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) _ Pat Rapp hopes to pick up where he left off last season, when the Florida Marlins’ right-hander matched Cy Young winner Greg Maddux win for win.

His back is telling him: Not so fast.

Four of the five Marlins’ starters are scheduled to go at least two innings in exhibition games starting Friday.

Manager Rene Lachemann plans a slow return for Rapp, who instead is scheduled to throw batting practice on one of the days.

The reason is surgery Nov. 8 to repair a herniated disk. Rapp injured the back just after the All-Star break, when he took an elbow from the Dodgers’ Roberto Kelley while covering first.

His teammates tease him that the back problems led to his dynamic finish.

``If that helped ease things along ...″ Rapp said with a smile. ``Maybe it gave me a more fluid motion.″

The results are hard to beat. Rapp is on a nine-game winning streak, and he ended the year by not giving up a run in his last 24 2-3 innings, the longest streak in the National League last season.

His 11-2 record after the break was matched only by the 11-1 record by Atlanta’s Maddux.

``Everything I had been working on _ the mechanics, my release _ it all came together,″ Rapp said. ``The second half of the season I became a pitcher. I felt what it feels like to be Greg Maddux for a half a season. I could throw any pitch I wanted at any time in the count. Hopefully, I’ll find it again this year.″

The Marlins have the same hope. Another performance like that will make even more solid a starting rotation that includes Chris Hammond, John Burkett and free agents Kevin Brown and Al Leiter.

``He’s not overpowering,″ Lachemann says. ``But moving-wise, he has one of the best fastballs in the league.″

The only question mark is his back. Without surgery, Rapp said doctors told him he had a 5 percent chance of making it through spring training.

Although he was walking the night after surgery, Rapp limits himself to only short distances when he runs. The rest of his conditioning comes from the stationary bike or the treadmill.

Despite his teammates’ ribbing, Rapp knows as well as anyone that his streak comes down to throwing strikes and confidence. Although he was second in the NL with 4.09 walks per nine innings, the number of walks sharply dropped the second half of the year.

``That’s the key with him,″ Hammond said. ``He started throwing first-pitch strikes. I don’t know a pitcher in baseball who has success working behind the count. And once you win two or three, you get a feel for what wins games.″

Throwing more first-pitch strikes also gave Rapp more confidence in his breaking pitch and change-up.

``That caused him to get the confidence that he belongs,″ pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. ``He was throwing 100 to 110 pitches in some games. Before that, he was at those numbers in the fifth or sixth inning.″

The back injury did nothing to slow him during last season, although it was a concern. Once he warmed up, it was fine. But 30 minutes after a game, the pain got worse. Rapp assumed he had a pulled muscle. However, when he began to feel pain in his side and numbness in his toes, he knew it was more serious.

Back surgery behind him, Rapp is anxious to pick up where he left off. With his second half as evidence, he believes a 20-win season is a reasonable goal, as long as he stays healthy.

``I had been getting by as a fastball thrower. I finally started pitching,″ he said. ``It showed me that maybe I have a brighter future than I thought.″

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