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51s workhorse Abreu hasn’t lost slider, smile

After toiling in the minor leagues for 11 seasons, 51s right-handed reliever Winston Abreu finally got his shot at the majors in August 2006, when he made a memorable debut.

Pitching for the Baltimore Orioles against the New York Yankees, the first batter Abreu faced was Alex Rodriguez. On a full count, Abreu struck him out on a called strike.

"The first batter, everybody gets nervous. I never thought I was going to pitch to Alex Rodriguez," he said. "But the first pitch I threw (fastball down the middle), the nerves were gone."

Abreu said catcher Ramon Hernandez offered some invaluable advice that helped calm him.

"He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Keep pitching the way you pitched in Triple A. Don’t change anything,’ " he said.

Abreu obliged, throwing a slider past A-Rod. Now 34 and in his 16th season, Abreu is still relying on his slider to get guys out.

"That’s been his out pitch all year," 51s pitching coach Tom Signore said.

Along with Sean Henn, who has a 2.79 ERA, Abreu has been a bright spot in the Las Vegas bullpen. He threw 1 2/3 innings of perfect relief to get a 4-3 win over Salt Lake on Friday at Cashman Field and is 8-5 with a 3.72 ERA. Abreu leads the team with 52 appearances and has allowed 55 hits in 65 1/3 innings, with 71 strikeouts and 33 walks.

"He’ll take the ball a lot," Signore said. "Sometimes we have to calm him down and say, ‘Take a day (off) today,’ because he’ll tell you, ‘I’m good for an inning.’"

Born in the baseball-mad Dominican Republic, Abreu played wherever he could, in the streets or the spacious backyard of his family’s home, where they would cut up towels and use them as bases.

It was during one of those makeshift backyard games where he was spotted, at 14, by an Atlanta Braves scout who had come to see one of his brothers.

Abreu signed as an undrafted free agent and spent his first seven seasons in the Braves organization. He has since played for nine other big league organizations, as well as in Japan and Mexico.

"I love playing baseball. I come in here happy. Some guys call me crazy," he said outside the 51s’ clubhouse. "I just keep working hard. I don’t complain about hot weather or cold weather. When I go to the mound, I try to do my thing."

Abreu also pitched for the Washington Nationals in 2007 and the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians in 2009, when he had surgery to remove a blood clot from his throwing arm.

"I had no circulation in my hands," said Abreu, who has a long scar on his right shoulder. "The doctor gave me two years to recover, and now I feel normal and have good velocity and everything in my arm."

Abreu compiled a 2.28 ERA and a career-high 23 saves for Triple-A Durham last year and has continued to excel this season. But he said he’s not concerned about making it back to the majors.

"A lot of guys don’t believe me, but I don’t think about the big leagues," he said. "If you call me, good. If you don’t call me, good. I try to do my job the best I can every day."

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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