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Nen Rediscovers Confidence in Florida : Baseball: Trade allowed former Los Alamitos standout to come in and replace Bryan Harvey as Marlins’ closer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few words would have lifted Robb Nen’s spirits that summer night as he slouched in front of his Oklahoma City clubhouse stall, exhausted, in pain, his mind filled with doubt.

The sentence spoken by his manager definitely was not on his “A” list. They were among the last words he wanted to hear: “You’ve been traded.”

The Texas Rangers’ patience with Nen, a hard-throwing right-hander whose stints on the disabled list seemed to rival his appearances on the mound, ended July 17, 1993, when he was traded to the Florida Marlins.

It was a crushing blow, but Nen remained composed. Maybe the change was for the best, Nen thought. Perhaps better days were ahead.

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Such encouragement no longer is necessary.

A little more than a year later, Nen is pain-free and flourishing as the Marlins’ closer. Although Nen’s breakthrough season is likely to end prematurely because of a players’ strike, he is optimistic about his future for the first time in a long time.

“I thought it was really good for me to get out of that environment (with the Rangers),” Nen said. “I just wanted to start over someplace else, and I hoped things would be better wherever I went.”

Sometimes reality exceeds even the loftiest expectations.

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Nen has been outstanding since assuming the Marlins’ stopper role in July when All-Star reliever Bryan Harvey underwent season-ending groin surgery. He is 5-5 with a 3.05 earned-run average and a team-high 15 saves.

Nen relies on a blazing fastball--which he said has been clocked at 98 m.p.h.--to dispose of batters, just as he did at Los Alamitos High. He has 57 strikeouts in 56 innings, which leads Florida’s relievers and is third among Marlin pitchers.

Moreover, Nen finds the strike zone with more frequency. He has walked only 16 batters for a superb strikeouts-to-walks ratio of about 4 to 1--a definite plus for a closer.

“He’s worked very hard on his control,” said Mike Gibson, Nen’s coach at Los Alamitos, who has sent several Griffins to the major leagues. “They obviously have a lot of confidence in him to have him out there in the late innings.

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“He threw past people in high school, but not always for strikes.”

While Nen, 24, has handled his new responsibility with the demeanor of a bomb-squad veteran, he is somewhat surprised by the smooth transition.

“I never thought I would have this many saves, that I’d be doing this good,” Nen said. “I never thought the chance for the saves would be there, but I’ve worked myself into this position, and I’m glad.”

Quite understandable considering the uncomfortable position from which he came.

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Nen’s seven years in the Ranger organization were ended unceremoniously by three trenchant words uttered by Manager Bobby Jones in the clubhouse of the Oklahoma City 89ers, the organization’s triple-A affiliate.

And what did Nen have to show for the experience? Well, a lot, albeit not the stuff that produces fond remembrances: a sore right arm, a battered psyche and a detailed understanding of pro baseball’s injury system. And all before birthday No. 24.

Tough times, indeed.

Chronic pain in his right shoulder forced Nen to undergo surgery three times from 1990-91. Texas placed Nen on the disabled list seven times, including three in 1991, and he missed most of the 1990 through ’93 seasons.

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A starter in the Rangers’ organization, Nen pitched more than 100 innings in a single season only once. But he was 7-4 with a 2.41 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 138 1/3 innings in 1989 for the Rangers’ single-A team in Gastonia, N.C.

That performance led Texas to believe Nen was a budding star, and he only cost the organization a 32nd-round pick in the 1987 draft.

Finally, however, the Rangers reached their limit.

Breaking such news is part of Jones’ job, though not the part he enjoys. Telling Nen it was time to move on was especially difficult because Jones played with Nen’s father, Dick, in the minor leagues at Denver in 1972. Dick also played with the Dodgers, Washington Senators and Chicago Cubs.

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“It was just a shame we had to trade him,” Jones said. “We didn’t see him in a closer role because he had such great stuff we wanted him to start.

“But the problem was he’d throw a complete game and then he’d have elbow problems. I have no idea why he was always hurt.”

Despite his problems, Nen did not see the trade coming.

“It was kind of a shock,” Nen said. “As much as they put into me, I didn’t think they would trade me. But I was always hurt so much that people started doubting me.”

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Nen admitted he often wondered if he had a place in baseball.

“It was tough,” he said. “I didn’t know how long it would take to recover or what would happen.”

The Marlins converted Nen to a reliever shortly after his arrival in south Florida. Last season, Nen was 1-0 with a 7.02 ERA in 15 appearances, 14 in relief.

Ironically, it was someone else’s precarious medical status that created an opportunity for Nen. Nen received some late-inning grooming early this season as Harvey--the Angels’ former relief ace--suffered a series of nagging injuries that limited his use. The groin injury that ended Harvey’s season propelled Nen to prominence.

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Nen credits Harvey’s tutelage for much of his ascent.

“Not having (Harvey) throwing has been hard, but he’s still a big part of our team,” Nen said. “When I do some things wrong, stupid things in certain situations, he’ll say, ‘Do this, or do that.’ Also, I’ve learned a lot of stuff just by watching him.”

Relief duty suits Nen. In fact, Nen wishes he would have started in the bullpen.

“When I was a starter, I’d go all out all the time,” Nen said. “I’d try to throw as hard as I could every inning, and I think that might have had something to do with my problems. As a reliever, I can go in for an inning or two and give it everything and be OK.”

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Jones is pleased by his former pitcher’s success.

“I’m not surprised because the talent was always there,” Jones said. “He’s finally healthy and putting it together.”

But it looks as if Nen’s show will close just as it is getting off the ground. The Major League Players Assn. has set a strike date of Aug. 12. A strike could possibly wipe out the season.

The prospect of not pitching again this season disappoints Nen, but he accepts it. As for next season--or whenever baseball resumes--Nen realizes Harvey is one of the game’s dominant relievers. If Harvey returns in good health, the Marlins’ closer job will revert to its previous owner.

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But Nen has youth on his side. What’s more, his future, finally, is wide open.

“Everything,” Nen said, “has really worked out great.”

Those are words Nen has longed to say for quite a while.


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