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03/11/08 9:50 PM ET

Fukumori emerging as reliable option

Rangers righty shining while bullpen colleagues recover

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Right-handed reliever Kazuo Fukumori believes he still has to win a job in the Rangers bullpen.

Manager Ron Washington loves that attitude, even if Fukumori's fears of unemployment are a little premature.

"That's just his competitiveness," Washington said. "That's just how he is as a competitor. That's how you stay at the top of your game. That's a good thing."

The reality of the situation is the Rangers bullpen might be in some trouble without Fukumori right now. With left-hander C.J. Wilson and right-hander Joaquin Benoit still sidelined, Fukumori has emerged as the Rangers' best reliever in camp.

Fukumori, a free agent signed out of Japan in the offseason, went out and pitched another scoreless inning on Tuesday afternoon in the Rangers' 7-5 victory over the White Sox. He set the side down in order in the fifth with one strikeout and has now pitched six scoreless innings over five appearances in Cactus League games.

The Rangers thought Fukumori might have to brought along slowly this spring since he was coming off elbow surgery and pitching in the United States for the first time. But not only has he assimilated quickly into the Rangers' team fabric, he also been their best pitcher out on the field.

"I made a zero out on the scoreboard today, and that's good," Fukumori said. "But I need to keep studying the hitters and learning more. I'm just trying to be one of the relievers."

He was a closer in Japan, saving 21 games with a 2.17 ERA in 2006. He wasn't supposed to be a closer for the Rangers, but that job is still open right now, and he is at least making a case for some prominent role at the end of the game.

The Rangers would like for Wilson to win the spot, but he's still sidelined with biceps tendinitis. Benoit could be a candidate, but he's out with shoulder inflammation, and the Rangers aren't even sure if he'll be ready for the start of the season.

Left-hander Eddie Guardado is a former All-Star closer, but he's 37 and has made just 15 appearances in the Major Leagues since coming back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction. He has been unscored upon in three of his four outings this spring.

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"I've always said I've got four guys that can close a ballgame," Washington said. "We'll see what happens. Fukumori is definitely one of them."

The Rangers are hoping Wilson and Benoit will be pitching in Cactus League games by the weekend. But there seems to be some rising doubt as to whether Benoit will be ready by Opening Day.

He has been bothered by a sore right shoulder this spring and has yet to pitch in a Cactus League game. He is expected to have a bullpen throwing session on Wednesday, and the Rangers hope to know more after that.

"We think he's getting there, but it has been slow in coming," Rangers pitching coach Mark Connor said. "My hope is he'll still get his eight innings and be ready for Spring Training and be ready for Opening Day, but I have to go according to what he says. If he's not ready to pitch, I have to go with that."

Benoit said he would "probably" be ready for Opening Day on March 31 against the Mariners, but he isn't certain.

"I'm only a human person," said Benoit, the Rangers' Pitcher of the Year in 2007. "I don't know what will happen today or tomorrow. But that's what I'm working for."

Wilson is expected to throw a bullpen session on Wednesday, and that could be the final step toward him pitching in a Cactus League game this weekend. Wilson fully expects to be ready on Opening Day, but the Rangers still want him to go out there and earn the closer's job.

"We just need to get rid of that soreness," Washington said. "He has enough time; we've still got time left."

They also have another option in Fukumori.

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