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Bulger injury free, competing for spot in Angels bullpen

Despite being a first-round draft choice, Jason Bulger has never made an opening day roster in the major leagues.

Will this finally be the year for the Brookwood graduate?

"There's an opportunity for him," Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scoscia said.

It's been injuries that have set the right-handed reliever back, but it is the woes of other pitchers that may give Bulger his opportunity this year.

The Angels - picked to repeat as American League West champions - could start the season with as many as four pitchers on the disabled list.

Bulger, 29, is one of the candidates for open spots in the Angels' deep and talented bullpen.

"I'm excited about my chances," Bulger said. "This is the healthiest that I've ever felt."

Healthy is something that Bulger has rarely been since being taken by Arizona with the 22nd overall pick in 2001 after a late rise to prominence at Valdosta State.

That draft was an historic one, with Bulger's brothers - Kevin and Brian - being late-round selections. Brian eventually spent four years in the minors and Kevin one. This is Jason's seventh season, almost all of it spent in the minors.

Dan Haren and Jeremy Bonderman - selected after Jason in 2001 - have been prominent major league starters for several seasons. Bulger, meanwhile, has just 72 days of big-league service time.

"It's been frustrating, but all the injuries are behind me now," Bulger said.

Since he had been mainly a third baseman before taking up pitching seriously at Valdosta State, Arizona knew that picking Bulger was a bit of a reach. But the $950,000 investment seemed like a good gamble.

Then Bulger blew out his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery in 2003.

In the spring of 2006, Arizona traded Bulger to the Angels, where more injuries were to follow.

Already on the disabled list at Class AAA Salt Lake because of a sore shoulder, Bulger was involved in a scary outfield collision with a teammate during batting practice.

"It was a fluke thing," said Bulger, who was in intensive care for several days because of bleeding on the brain. "Thankfully, we're both OK now."

Bulger struck out 81 in 512/3 innings last season at Salt Lake, earning a promotion to the Angels on Sept. 1. In six major league appearances, he fanned eight in 61/3 innings.

With a mid-90s fastball and a slider that may now be his best pitch, Bulger has the power arm that every bullpen is looking for these days. But his walk total has also been high, with 11 walks to 18 strikeouts in 18 major league innings.

If it wasn't for a wild outing on March 8 against San Francisco, Bulger may have already cemented a spot in the Angels bullpen. He walked four and was charged with four runs in 12/3 innings against the Giants.

Bulger's other five Cactus League outings have been scoreless, however, and he has walked just one more batter.

Bulger pitched two innings against San Diego on Monday, lowering his ERA to 4.00. He has nine strikeouts in nine innings.

"He came up last year and showed he has that breaking ball that plays in the major league to go with a power fastball," Scioscia said. "He just needs command and consistency."

"I had a good September last season and I feel good about this year," Bulger said. "But I knew it would not be easy to win a spot in this bullpen.

"The only thing I can control is what I do on the mound. The rest will play out as it should. The right guy will get the spot."

The Angels begin the season Monday at Minnesota and Bulger hopes to be there to take part in the opening day ceremonies.

He'd also like to be with the Angels in midseason, when his hometown Atlanta Braves visit Anaheim for an interleague series June 13-15.

Bulger lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., now, but the former Snellville resident hasn't forgotten his Georgia roots.

"I never thought I'd like the desert, but kinda fell in love with it," Bulger said. "Georgia is still my home, though. That will never change and I get back when I can."

Bulger would actually like to have three homes - Georgia, Arizona and the Los Angeles Angels' bullpen.

The former first-round draft choice has certainly gone through a lot in his major league quest and a postseason berth likely awaits the Angels again.

"I think everyone on the team thinks we're going to have a really good year," Bulger said.

SideBar: THE BULGER FILE

Who: Jason Bulger

Team: Los Angeles Angels

Position: Right-handed relief pitcher

Age: 29

Size: 6-foot-4, 210 pounds

Residence: Scottsdale, Ariz.

Birthplace: Lawrenceville

High school: Brookwood

College: Valdosta State

When drafted: First-round selection of Arizona in 2001 with the 22nd overall pick. Brothers Kevin and Brian also drafted that year in a baseball first.

2007 stats: Was 0-0 with a 2.84 ERA in six September appearances with the Angels after going 5-2 with a 3.76 ERA and 10 saves in 49 games with AAA Salt Lake. He struck out 81 in 522/3 minor league innings.