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HERD'S WATKINS PROGRESSES ACCORDING TO PLAN

For Steve Watkins, Plan B is working out just fine for now.

Plan A focused on becoming a starter for the San Diego Padres. Maybe even bloom into a star. Plan A ended last year after six seasons. Watkins had his moments, yes, just not enough in the eyes of the Padres.

But there are always teams that take chances on big right-handers who make the ball hum, and perhaps Watkins can go back to Plan A. Only this time with the Cleveland Indians.

After an uneven first inning in which he gave up two runs, Watkins settled in and allowed only one run and three hits over the next five to lead the Buffalo Bisons to a 7-3 victory over the Richmond Braves on Sunday in front of 6,956 in Dunn Tire Park. The Bisons (2-2) split the four-game series with the Braves (2-2) and will host Syracuse at 1:05 p.m. today (Radio 1230 and 1330 AM).

The 6-foot-4 Watkins, who signed with the Indians as a free agent in November, pitched six full innings and scattered seven hits with two strikeouts and one walk. He was in an early jam when Richmond's Jason Bourgeois singled and scored on Kelly Johnson's double to center. John Barnes singled to center, moving Johnson to third, before James Jurries' sacrifice fly scored Johnson to give the Braves a 2-0 lead.

But Watkins locked down Richmond from there, retiring 17 of the next 20 batters. He was replaced by Chad Zerbe, and Zerbe and Jake Robbins were untouched in the seventh, eighth and ninth.

"You look at the first inning and it's like, 'Oh, it's going to be a long day,' " said Bisons manager Marty Brown. "But he regrouped."

After the first inning, Watkins, pitching coach Ken Rowe and catcher Ryan Garko tweaked the game plan: Pound them inside with fastballs, then fire the cutter away.

After that, Tony Pena singled in the second, Barnes doubled in the fifth and J.C. Boscan doubled in the sixth to score Billy McCarthy, who walked.

That was it for the Braves.

"As soon as we made the adjustment, he got into their heads a little bit," said Garko, whose three-run homer in the third gave the Bisons a 7-2 lead. "After the second hit of the game, I don't think they took a good swing off him all game."

While Watkins would recommend the Padres to any young prospect, he said the last few seasons he was "put in a box" by the organization. In 2001 at Double-A Mobile, Watkins' ERA was 5.73. In 2002, he lost seven consecutive starts.

"Regardless of how well or how poorly you do, you have this image of what kind of pitcher you're going to be," he said. "It's good to get out of that and make my own road. . . . In the back of my mind everybody in the organization had that image of me as far as, 'Hey, this guy might not be able to handle certain situations.' "

But last season there was a breakthrough when he started working with Mobile pitching coach Gary Lance.

"There's a lot more in that tank if you want me to unlock it for you," Lance told him.

Watkins started working on a heavy sinker, which he hopes to develop into his money pitch. He pitched in the bigs for the first time in his career and made 11 appearances.

"I scraped the surface on the pitcher I think I can be," he said.

Still, it was time for a new organization, a fresh set of eyes, to take a peek at Watkins. In the spring, Tribe manager Eric Wedge told Watkins, "You're going to get your chance. Go."

A new team. Another opportunity. Back to Plan A?

"The minute I came over here, I felt like I was at home," Watkins said. "I felt like I had been here for four years. There's no walking on egg shells ever. It's your clubhouse, it's nice and relaxed. You come in, do your job and you get an opportunity to do your job, and it's your horse to ride if you want to."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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