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Cooke hopes to bounce back

February 27, 1997 GMT

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) _ Steve Cooke, the forgotten man of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching staff the last two seasons, is getting noticed again.

He made only three relief appearances over the past two years because of nerve damage in his pitching shoulder, but the left-hander has been the Pirates’ most pleasant surprise in spring training.

He might even join the starting rotation, now tentatively comprising right-handers Jon Lieber, Jason Schmidt, Francisco Cordova, Esteban Loaiza and Rich Loiselle.

``Out of all the pitchers in this camp that I’ve seen before, Cooke is the one I’ve watched the closest,″ manager Gene Lamont said. ``What I’ve been looking for in him is arm strength.

``His arm looks healthy to me. I like the way he’s been throwing. His velocity is good, and he really has some bite again on his breaking pitches.″

He said Cooke has given himself a chance at being a starter again.

``He’s been pretty impressive. It’s still early but I wouldn’t mind having a lefty in our rotation,″ Lamont said.

Cooke believes he is ready.

``I’d be disappointed if I didn’t make it,″ he said. ``I’ve worked really hard. I came to camp in good shape and I’m serious about getting my job back in the rotation.

``And I feel great. I feel like the old Steve Cooke again when on the mound. My velocity might not be quite what it was before I got hurt, but it’s close and all my other pitches seem a little sharper than they did before.″

Cooke had a solid rookie season with Pittsburgh in 1993, going 10-10 with a 3.89 earned-run average in 32 starts. However, his shoulder problems began in 1994 as he slipped to 4-11 with a 5.02 ERA in 25 games.

Cooke spent all of 1995 season and the first 2 1/2 months of last season on the disabled list. He was activated June 19, and gave up seven runs over 8 1-3 relief innings. He then finished the season with Class AA Carolina, going 1-5 with a 4.36 ERA in 12 starts.

``It got frustrating at times,″ he said. ``I wondered if I’d ever make it back.″

The degenerative nerve caused his shoulder to become weak. All he could do was wait for the problem to go away.

Pirates Dr. Jack Failla ``said it would be about 18 months before I was all the way back and that’s a long time,″ Cooke said.

``The toughest part was you would see someone like (former teammate) Rick White undergo `Tommy John’ ligament reconstruction surgery on his elbow, a serious operation, and he would be back pitching in nine months.

``But an operation wouldn’t have done me any good. All I could do was try to strengthen my should and wait.″

The long wait appears to be over.

``I think a lot of people kind of forgot about me, but I understand,″ Cooke said. ``I’m sure a lot of people think I’m still a longshot, but I kind of like being in that underdog role. It pumps me. And, believe me, I haven’t been this pumped up in a long time.″