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Opening Day big chance for Pavano

Opening Day big chance for Pavano

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jason Giambi remembers what it's like to be the huge question mark in Yankees pinstripes, desperately trying to reacclimate after a variety of injuries and health issues.

That's why he can sympathize with Carl Pavano.

The oft-injured right-hander is on the cusp of returning to Major League action after a 1 1/2-year layoff, and is a likely choice to be the Yankees' Opening Day starter, if only by default. The assignment should fall to Pavano with ace Chien-Ming Wang down to injury and both Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte projecting to be off-turn for April 2.

"I hope he embraces it," Giambi said Sunday. "This is a chance for him to stand up front and show everybody the type of pitcher he is. I'm excited for him, and I hope he's excited that he gets that opportunity. You want to harness that excitement.

"This is a big chance for him. I know what it's like to come, basically, from hell."

The "hell" Giambi speaks of was his miserable 2004 campaign, in which he served two separate stints on the disabled list, sidelined for the first times of his career.

A sprained right ankle, an intestinal parasite and a benign tumor limited Giambi to just 80 games for New York, as he batted a career low .208 and was forced to slowly distance himself from the Yankees' postseason aspirations.

Upon Giambi's return a year later, a season that the slugger parlayed into an AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, Derek Jeter had been among the first to welcome the slugger back into the Yankees fold. It is a gesture Giambi has not forgotten to this day.

It's that brand of in-house acceptance that could help Pavano take a step toward fulfilling some of the promise the Yankees saw after the 2004 season, signing him to a four-year contract.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Pavano will be announced by legendary public address announcer Bob Sheppard on the afternoon of April 2, warming up in the Yankees bullpen as Joe Torre and Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon stand face-to-face at home plate.

It's unclear how a projected capacity crowd will receive Pavano after a multitude of injuries and mishaps prevented him from contributing to the club over a span of 643 days, but Giambi said he hopes his Yankees teammates will be applauding.

"I hope they ... give him that second opportunity to stand up," Giambi said. "Go show him that, 'Hey, we're behind him.' I think that's important for the guys to rally around him and make him feel like he's really wanted, because I know that was important to me."

The odds of Pavano throwing the first pitch of the Yankees' season would have been unbelievably long had they been handicapped on Feb. 13, the day pitchers and catchers reported to Legends Field in Tampa. Pavano said he considered the likely nod "an honor" but admitted that even he hadn't envisioned the thought of an Opening Day assignment.

"It's unfortunate," Pavano said. "We've got some of the best pitchers on our staff now injured. With the turn of events, if I get that opportunity, it's my time to pick up some slack. I guess it's a positive for me, because I was always on the other end."

Pavano's spring performances have been solid, not spectacular. Early in camp, the Yankees were simply content to see Pavano make his scheduled turns around the rotation without setbacks, and he did so, excepting for an excused absence from a March 9 game to attend to a personal matter.

With pitch counts rising and starters being stretched out, however, the Yankees have been looking for more from Pavano. His statistics are underwhelming -- 0-1 with a 5.84 ERA in four games, with 18 hits plus seven walks and five strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings -- but Torre believes there's more to Pavano's spring than just the raw numbers.

"I like what I've seen from him," Torre said. "Not only the stuff on the mound, but his whole demeanor. I think it would be a progression if he was the one [to start Opening Day]. I don't think it would make any kind of statement other than that we're comfortable where he is."

Apprised of his looming potential start, Pavano was quick to state that he hadn't heard of the opportunity until he arrived at Legends Field on Sunday -- Torre had announced the scheduling problems of using Mussina or Pettitte after Pavano left the stadium Saturday -- but said that he would have to think of the start as he would any other.

After his laundry list of trials and tribulations, some of it misfortune and some of it self-induced, just the fact that Pavano will be receiving a game ball in a Major League stadium is noteworthy. The fact that it's probably coming on Opening Day just adds to the drama of it all.

"One game of 162," Pavano said. "It's an important start, but every start for me is important."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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