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Wood shining in Kansas City

Blake Wood was an afterthought when Kansas City began spring training, but that is no longer the case.

The former North Gwinnett and Georgia Tech pitcher is suddenly bidding for an opening day spot in the Royals bullpen.

Wood has made three Cactus League appearances and hasn't allowed a run or a hit. The 6-foot-4 right-hander has allowed two walks, but he's more than balanced that with three strikeouts.

Where did this come from?

Wood, 24, suffered through his worst minor league season a year ago, posting a 5.83 ERA and 2-8 record in the Class AA Texas League. He had shoulder problems early on and then was sidelined by a forearm strain that was first called an elbow injury.

But there turned out to be a silver lining to Wood's season of woe. While working his way back, he was forced to pitch out of the bullpen for the first time.

Suddenly, everything began to click. Wood had found his home.

"I liked it from the get-go," he said.

Pitching more aggressively and thinking less, Wood began truly challenging hitters again with his fastball and not trying to trick them so much with his other pitches.

Wood worked out of the bullpen at the end of the season with Northwest Arkansas and again in the Arizona Fall League. The Royals took notice.

Wood was put on Kansas City's 40-man roster for the first time. The move was made in part because the 2006 third-round draft choice needed to be protected in the Rule 5 draft. But it guaranteed a spot in his first big league camp and an opportunity to show off his improvement.

Wood impressed in workouts. Then he showed he could get big league hitters out in Cactus League games. Spring training is still just half over, but Kansas City's biggest surprise has gone from a likely early cut to maybe not getting cut at all.

"You look at him and say, 'That looks like a big-league pitcher,'" Royals pitching coach Bob McClure told the Kansas City Star.

Wood has always had the potential, ranking among the Royals' top prospects at times. He'd shown it only in glimpses, though. He missed much of the 2007 season because of a herniated disc and then battled injuries again last year. Even when healthy, he often wasn't calling on his full talent.

"I just wasn't going after guys as much as I should have," Wood said.

That's called not trusting your stuff. But he's now getting his fastball up to as much as 97 mph and he still also has his quality curveball and changeup.

"We've been impressed with him since what he did in the Fall League when he went to the bullpen," Royals manager Trey Hillman told the Kansas City newspaper.

Wood hasn't made the Kansas City bullpen yet. But at least he is in the running for a spot. Who would have thought that after last season's struggles?

"When I went to the bullpen, I started believing in myself more," Wood said.

It worked.