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03/06/10 6:55 PM EST

Choate working on being double threat

Rays would like left-handed reliever to expand his role

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Flexibility is a characteristic the Rays strive to have throughout their organization, even with relief pitchers.

Randy Choate is the perfect example of this philosophy. Choate has mostly been a left-handed specialist over his career, Tampa Bay would like to get a little more out of the 34-year-old this season.

"The challenge we have for him this year, hopefully -- if there's a left-right-left situation -- he becomes good enough to really pitch through the tough right-handed hitter also," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If we could get him to that point, it makes him really interesting. I don't see him going left-right-left-right in a crucial situation, but he could go left-right-left if it presented itself."

To help arm Choate for the effectiveness it'd like him to find, Tampa Bay will give him the freedom this spring to work on his slider and four-seamer with the hopes that he finds additional options for use against right-handers.

Saturday afternoon against the Red Sox, Choate came in to pitch the second inning, and he faced three right-handers. He got ahead of Darnell McDonald, 1-2, before getting him to ground out to first. Choate then walked Che-Hsuan Lin after falling behind, 3-0, but he finished strong by getting Mark Wagner to ground into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. That's just the kind of results the Rays are hoping to get from Choate this season.

Choate is fine with the Rays' plan for him. The fact they are counting on him at all is a major upgrade for the veteran, who has spent parts of nine seasons in the Major League. Last spring, Choate came to camp as a non-roster invitee, pitched well, but when Spring Training had run its course, Choate found himself pitching for Triple-A Durham. Part of the impediment for his making the squad was the presence of lefty Brian Shouse, whom the Rays signed to a deal worth $1.55 million.

When Shouse went on the disabled list in May, Choate got his chance, joining the team on May 25. He went on to make 61 appearances over Tampa Bay's final 115 games. Only two other pitchers in the American League made more appearances during that span.

Choate definitely feels more comfortable this spring since he is on the 40-man roster. But one thing is for certain: He won't be taking his status for granted.

"It's a little bit like 2005," Choate said. "I was in Arizona, and I had a two-year contract. I think the difference for me then is I did take it for granted and I came in kind of like, 'Oh, I've got this, no doubt, because I'm on a two-year deal.' A month and a half later, I was designated back to Triple-A. So I think that is the difference for me, where I won't take it for granted. I know nothing is guaranteed.

"As soon as you're here and you feel comfortable, with the exception of a few guys who are just guaranteed big leaguers, you can be out as quickly as you got here. So I don't take it for granted, but it's definitely a lot more comfortable, more easygoing."

Throughout his career, Choate has experienced the shuttle between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues. The big difference for him in 2009 was continuing to employ the philosophy of throwing his two-seamer to get ahead in the count and pounding the strike zone. That philosophy sounds simple, but it signaled a radical change from the philosophy Choate once employed.

"I've kind of learned over the years to try and get ahead with [the two-seamer] early in the count, then you just get guys to put it on the ground," Choate said. "We have a really good infield [on the Rays]. If you can get [opposing hitters] to put it on the ground, they can do the work. Whereas in the past, I was trying to strike everybody out -- be perfect. For me, it wasn't just getting left-handers out. I had to strike them out."

Choate also pointed out that getting positive vibes from his manager went a long way toward building him up.

"I don't think I've had a manager as confident in me as Joe showed he was last year," Choate said.

Maddon said Choate earned that confidence.

"He threw strikes, and when he came up, he was a strike-thrower," Maddon said. "We gave him some opportunities [in 2009], and you could see him start to settle down into it. I liked the idea he threw strikes and was putting the ball into play. And it really became obvious lefties were having a very hard time against him.

"He's a pro. He does his work. He really fits in well with us. But he threw strikes. It really came down to that. It's still the best pitch in baseball."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.