The situation was pretty clear this spring for Jason Bulger.
Either make the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim opening day roster or face waivers. Out of minor league options, he really had no other choices. Pitch well or face uncertainty.
The Brookwood grad made the big league club's opening day roster for the second straight season, but the feeling of relief was quickly replaced with a feeling of despair. He struggled early, his confidence waned and his ERA ballooned.
"Honestly, it's been a bit of a roller coaster season," Bulger said. "I started the season rocky to say the least. It was a nightmare."
Fortunately, he woke up from it.
Bulger has allowed just one earned run in his last nine appearances, success that has made him a valuable reliever for the Angels, just behind first-place Texas in the American League West. Once used predominantly in blowout games, the 30-year-old right-hander is now being entrusted with the ball in close games and pressure situations.
"When you're in kind of a mop-up role, it's not always easy to pitch in that role," Bulger said. "I don't know how satisfied I was with keeping us in the game when we're down seven runs. But I just tried to go out there and have fun."
Lately, it's been a lot more fun.
Bulger's ERA spiked up to 12.86 after a rough outing April 25 against Seattle. But it's dropped steadily with each outing since thanks to a run of eight straight scoreless appearances.
He's 2-0 with 11 strikeouts and five walks in 102/3 innings during that span. He's given up only five hits in those nine appearances.
"I had to make a couple of changes (after the start of the season), some physical and some mental, just my attitude on the mound," said Bulger, who is planning a November wedding to his fiancee, Janice Lindsey. "Fortunately some of those changes have really helped. I've got the confidence of my coaches and my role's starting to increase."
No stranger to adversity, Bulger's past made him more prepared to handle this season's stress. Some first-round draft picks take the fast track to the majors, but not much has come easy for Bulger since the Arizona Diamondbacks took him 22nd overall in 2001.
He wasn't overly experienced as a pitcher before being drafted, and his development hit a major problem in 2003 when arm troubles forced Tommy John surgery. He also endured shoulder issues and a scary collision with a teammate in 2006 that left him in the ICU with brain bleeding.
All the while, he's tried to stick in the majors. He made major strides last season with a dominant Class AAA season (4-0, 16 saves, 0.63 ERA), and has rediscovered that groove this year.
Even with the tough start.
"It hasn't been an easy path, but in the long term it's made me stronger," Bulger said. "Everybody has bumps and it's beneficial that I hit those bumps early in my career. I learned to deal with them early on. There may be more to come, who knows?
"But I learned not to get frustrated or quit. It made me stronger as a pitcher and as a person in general. And I think you appreciate your success more when it takes that much work to get there."
SideBar: The Bulger File
· Who: Jason Bulger
· Team: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
· Position: Pitcher
· Age: 30
· Height: 6-foot-4
· Weight: 215 pounds
· High school: Brookwood
· College: Valdosta State
· Has spent the past four seasons with the Angels organization
· MILB.com Reliever of the Year last season after going 4-0 with 16 saves and a 0.63 ERA at Class AAA Salt Lake
· Made major league debut in 2005 for Arizona
· First round pick, No. 22 overall, of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001
· Inducted this year into the Gwinnett County Dugout Club Hall of Fame