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Headed His Way : Cleveland Pitcher Finds Life Has Taken a Wright Turn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Cleveland Indians lost the seventh game of the World Series last year, but Jaret Wright--the rookie right-hander who gave up just two hits in 6 1/3 innings of the game eventually won by the Florida Marlins--still returned home to Anaheim the conquering hero.

Apparently, it was an off-season of hometown boy makes good.

“A young guy who had that kind of exposure and success. . . . I’m sure he was on top of the world,” catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. said, smiling.

For his part, Wright, 22, showed the same kind of maturity, poise and class he does on the mound when asked about the rumors of his rich off-season life.

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“Next question,” he said, smiling too.

Wright’s performance last season, when he went from the double-A Akron Aeros to the glare of the major league playoffs, where he won three games and lost none, drew the attention of all sorts of baseball fans, especially those in the Angels’ front office.

In 1994, the Angels chose to draft McKay Christensen in the first round. Four more teams passed on Wright, then a Katella High senior with a fastball in the 90s, before the Indians selected him with the 10th pick overall.

The rest is storybook stuff, culminating with the start in Game 7 when Manager Mike Hargrove opted to go with Wright over veteran Charles Nagy because of the 21-year-old’s “tremendous will, tremendous composure.”

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Since then, everybody but the Marlins has been trying to get a piece of Wright.

“It was certainly the most eventful off-season I’ve ever had,” Wright said. “Constant phone calls, some endorsements, [baseball] card shows. . . . It’s all good, it’s part of what you play for and I did as much as I could, but you come to realize you can’t please everybody. You still have to have your own life.”

Wright’s father, Clyde, a former pitcher with the Angels, said he tried to advise his son not to allow himself to be pulled in too many directions, but it wasn’t as if he was speaking from experience.

“I told him that the way I handled the autograph hounds was to make all three of them line up single file,” he said. “But really, it was tough for him. It really bothers him to say no.”

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Jaret Wright clearly has no problem denying hitters, however. That’s something he proved time and again last season after being called up to the big leagues on June 25.

He was 8-3 with a 4.38 earned-run average in 16 regular-season starts and finished fifth in the balloting for rookie of the year, a vote that was taken before his five postseason starts and three victories.

“He’s definitely advanced for his age,” Alomar said. “He’s got great stuff, but it’s more than that. Maybe it’s the bloodlines. Maybe it’s in his genes. But he’s like a veteran out there.”

Wright felt more like a kid living a dream than a big-league veteran when he got around to watching the videotape of Game 7 this winter.

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“When you’re out there, you’re pretty much focused on the batter and the catcher,” he said, “but when you watch it on TV and you see the blimp shots and they flash all those stats on the screen and you listen to the commentary, I think that’s when it really began to sink in for me.”

The experience of surviving--even thriving--under the duress of baseball’s biggest series and its biggest game figures to be invaluable in jump-starting Wright’s career. On Wednesday against Seattle, in his first start this season, he struggled with his control, walking four and hitting a batter, but he battled through five innings and picked up the victory in Cleveland’s 9-7 win.

“For most guys my age, just coming up to the majors and pitching in normal games is a great boost of confidence,” he said. “Going through the postseason really helped me from the mental side. I feel like I belong.”


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