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02/26/10 3:00 PM EST

Paulino ready to enter the fast lane

Hard-throwing righty ready to see hard work pay off

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Michael Bourn's bat flew through the hitting zone a split-second too late, serving as no match for the final devastating fastball thrown by Felipe Paulino during his first session of live batting practice Friday afternoon.

"That was pretty nice, man," Bourn said with a smile as he walked from the cage.

"Thanks for coming," Paulino joked.

Bourn and a couple of his teammates shook their heads and whispered as Paulino walked off the mound, thoroughly impressed with what they had seen. Sure, it's only batting practice, it's only late February and there's nothing at stake, but Paulino provided a glimpse of what he's capable of doing. His stuff was dominating.

The truth is the Astros could have given up on Paulino a long time ago considering his history of injuries and questions surrounding his work ethic, but arms like his don't come around too often. There aren't many pitchers capable of throwing 100-mph fastballs wandering the back fields.

"You know that type of arm when things come together is pretty significant," general manager Ed Wade said. "Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't, but I think a lot of it has to do with giving yourself the best chance to succeed, and I think the approach he's taken during the offseason and the focus that he's brought into camp is an indication he's going to give himself a chance to succeed.

"It's competition. He's got to rise to the occasion."

Paulino arrived in camp competing for a spot in the starting rotation and as a work in progress. On Friday, he worked with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg to correct a slight drift in his leg lift to clean up his delivery. There's more work to be done. Paulino wants to learn to change speeds and not rely as much on his two-seam fastball or sinker.

"My stuff is great," Paulino said. "I'm a power pitcher and a power arm, and last year I threw everything hard, and this year I am trying to change it to slow, hard, slow, hard. I think that is going to work this year."

Arnsberg knows how rare arms like Paulino's are. He's had a few in his days in Florida and Toronto, including Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett. Blowing fastballs by hitters is one thing, but locating them is another.

"Your fastball is the best pitch in baseball if it's properly located," Arnsberg said. "The velocity is second to me. You need to be able to locate."

By now, Paulino's offseason regimen has been well-documented. He stayed in Houston this offseason and worked out with fellow Venezuelan teammate Humberto Quintero each morning at Minute Maid Park, getting put through the wringer by strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman.

Paulino built muscle in some of the areas where he needed and shed some of the extra weight that was holding him back. He worked so hard to get in shape that he was alarmed during one of the first days of Spring Training when he was a pound off his reporting weight.

"Gene explained daily weight fluctuation, and [Paulino's] focus now is to get ready to pitch," Wade said.

Paulino, 26, made his Major League debut late in the 2007 season, missed nearly all of 2008 while recovering from a pinched nerve in his right arm and took his lumps in the Majors last year.

He pitched in 23 games, making 17 starts, and was 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA. Paulino certainly didn't pitch well at times, but there was a stretch spanning 29 1/3 innings and six starts late in the season in which the Astros didn't score a single run while he was on the mound.

"Last year was last year," Paulino said. "I remember when the season ended last year, and I tried to improve for this year. I'm proud I stayed here in Houston and worked out. I wanted to be in shape for Spring Training. I think that made me feel good, and I came in strong and healthy and ready to compete."

"Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't, but I think a lot of it has to do with giving yourself the best chance to succeed, and I think the approach he's taken during the offseason and the focus that he's brought into camp is an indication he's going to give himself a chance to succeed."
-- Astros GM Ed Wade

Astros manager Brad Mills said it's probably Paulino's job to lose. Bud Norris might have the inside track for the fourth spot in the rotation, and the same could probably be said for Paulino and the fifth spot. But if he falters, Brian Moehler and others would gladly take his slot.

"I think we'd really like a guy with the ability he has and the talent he has to go ahead and take the bull by the horns and do it," Mills said. "So we're going to wait and see. But a guy with his skills, if he has to go back and develop those a little bit more because of his age, that's not hurting us at all.

"If it takes a little time to develop and come up and be an everyday starter, that will happen. At the same time, you'd love to have a guy with that type of arm in the rotation."

Paulino admits he has more confidence this year and is ready to reward the Astros for showing so much patience. He's eager to dominate.

"My confidence is going to be better," Paulino said. "I started working out and tried to be confident all the time. When you have the pitches, [you have to] be confident. You know Houston is going to give me the ball every five days, and you're going to be more confident and stronger in your mind when you pitch the game."

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