Humber takes step forward

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Phil Humber is just another guy trying to win a job in camp, and for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft, it’s better that way.

No living up to the hype. Just go out and pitch.

“I signed as a minor-league free agent last year — there aren’t a whole lot of expectations that come with that,” said Humber, who pitched three scoreless innings in his start against Texas on Thursday. “It was good for me. I could do my own thing and not worry what others were thinking about it. Just relax and go out and have fun with baseball.”

Looking to fit in as a long relief man or fifth starter if Jake Peavy doesn’t break camp, Humber threw 19 of his 26 pitches for strikes. He gave up two singles, struck out two and walked none.

“He’s the only guy who has stepped it up,” Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “He took a big step today.”

Since being drafted out of Rice by the Mets after Matt Bush and Justin Verlander, Humber has battled through a series of injuries, including reconstructive elbow surgery. He owns a pedestrian 5.26 combined ERA over 51 1/3 innings with the Mets, Twins and Royals. At Kansas City last season, his 2-1 won-lost record and 4.15 ERA offered a trace of encouragement.

Bullpen coach Juan Nieves has been working with Humber on a cut fastball, which he used Thursday. The Sox coaching staff encourage newcomers to experiment with the cutter. It works better for some than others.

“It’s a new pitch for me,” Humber said. “Juan has been helping me out with a little bit and I’ve been picking other guys’ brains. Now it’s a matter of knowing when to use it in the game and being confident it will do what it needs to do.”

Humber also broke Mike Napoli’s bat with a two-seam fastball and snapped off some sharp-breaking curveballs.

“I threw a couple of good [curveballs] today,” he said. “It’s tough out here in Arizona to get a ball to break. Any time you see a little bit of depth, you feel good about it. Especially when you get a swing and miss.”

“Mostly I was just concentrating on throwing strikes and I wanted to work on the cutter a little bit,” Humber said. “It’s a new pitch for me. I wanted to work on that pitch a lot today. Most of the [cutters] I threw were good. I got some weak contact on it and that also helped my two-seamer running back the other way. It was good for me to see. It’s going to be a pitch I’m probably going to use. It was positive today for sure.”

From an auditioning standpoint, the best thing Humber did was pound the strike zone. That’s what Guillen wants first and foremost.

“Most managers that’s what they like to say. They don’t want a guy, especially if you are a long man, it seems like that’s the spot that might be open in the bullpen. If you are a guy like that, they want you to attack the hitters and see what happens. If you go out there and walk guys, they can’t use you. I definitely want to attack the zone.”

Said Guillen: “All spring he’s the only one guy who has stepped it up. So far, he’s pitched well. I said a couple of days ago that nobody has impressed me at all. This kid came out and threw the ball well against a pretty good hitting team. It’s very nice and pleasant to see that because we continue to look for somebody for the reliever spot or just in case Jake can’t be on the team. We’re looking for that type of guy and he’s throwing the ball well. He’s moving forward. He took a big step, a huge step today. Hopefully in the next couple of starts he continues to do it.”

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