CLEVELAND _ In 1994, the Cleveland Indians were excited about a 23-year-old flame thrower they considered their "closer in waiting."
The youngster's name was Paul Shuey, a 1992 first-round selection from the University of North Carolina with a Goose Gossage-like fu-manchu mustache, high leg kick and fastball.
For quite a while, however, Shuey appeared to be a pale imitation of Gossage, as injuries and inconsistency made him the object of trade talks and the ridicule of Indians' fans.
All that appears to have changed.
By the end of last season, a healthy Shuey had become an effective weapon in the middle of the Indians' bullpen, with three out pitches that kept the opposition off balance.
With Mike Jackson's emergence as the Indians' closer, Shuey had been given duty as the team's right-handed set-up man, and he had finally begun to flourish in the role with a 5-3 record, a 3.00 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 51 innings.
In the home opener at Jacobs Field Monday, Shuey served notice that he is ready to go from merely effective to simply devastating.
With a fastball clocked in the high 90s, a splitter in the mid 90s and a hard-breaking curve ball, Shuey dominated the Kansas City Royals for 21/3 innings to earn his first win of the season in the Tribe's 5-2, 10-inning victory.
"I felt really good out there, and I had all three pitches working," said Shuey. "It's not often you can go in a game and have all three pitches working like that. It was a lot of fun."
It wasn't much fun for the Royals.
Shuey entered the game with two outs in the eighth and the Indians trailing 2-0, and promptly forced Kansas City first baseman Jeff King to ground weekly to Enrique Wilson at short on a split-finger fastball to end the inning.
The Royals put the ball in play just two more times against Shuey, a soft grounder to second and a simple comebacker to the mound, as the Indians' reliever struck out four Kansas City batters over the final two innings.
"It was my kind of game out there," said Shuey. "It was cold. It was a day game, we were wearing our white uniforms, and I'm throwing a white ball in and out of the shadows. Those things help a pitcher out."
Shuey used everything at his disposal to keep the Royals at bay, allowing time for what he called, "the inevitable."
"You just know that with this lineup, if you can keep things close, we're going to score some runs," said Shuey.
The Indians forced the game into extra innings on a two-run homer by Wilson in the eighth, then won the game on a dramatic 10th-inning home run to right-center by Travis Fryman.
"This team is a lot of fun," said Shuey. "I'm having fun. There is no question that this whole team is having fun. We've won (six games) in a row. We just need to ride that wave as long as we can."
Phil Regan, Shuey's pitching coach when he was a rookie with the Tribe in 1994 who returned to that job this season after spending the last five years in other organizations, said he saw a remarkable difference in Shuey.
"He's shown amazing improvement," said Regan. "He's more mature, he's more relaxed. A big thing is that he's cut down his leg kick, which has made it harder for people to steal on him. I even think he throws the ball harder now, and his split-finger is simply outstanding."
With Mike Jackson a free agent at the end of the season, Shuey's continued improvement could have him back in the Indians' plans as a closer.
"Right now we look at Paul as a quality set-up guy, but he definitely has a chance to go beyond that," said Indians general manager John Hart. "He definitely has the stuff to be a closer. We've always liked Paul, he's just had some injuries and some hamstring problems that have held him back. Right now we have Paul signed here for three more years, and I'd love to keep him here as long as we can. I not only like him as a player, but he's a great kid."