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Garden City's Matt Daley is healthy, looks forward to competing for spot with Yanks

Yankees' Matt Daley pitches from the mound in

Yankees' Matt Daley pitches from the mound in practice. (Feb. 20, 2013) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

TAMPA, Fla. -- This year, Matt Daley believes he belongs.

Sure, the Garden City High School graduate was in Yankees camp a season ago, but he really wasn't.

Rehabbing players always feel a sense of disconnect. While their teammates are going through their regular day-to-day activities, those coming back from injuries are elsewhere on doctor- or trainer-prescribed routines.

That was the case for Daley (signed to a minor-league deal in December 2011) all of last spring training as he rehabbed from August 2011 surgery on his right labrum.

"Last year everything was abbreviated and abridged and I just wanted to be a part of the team, but it's very hard to do that when you're not doing the same thing as them," Daley said. "That's the best part for me. Feeling like I belong a lot more this year."

And with a chance -- albeit a long shot as of now -- of making the club out of spring training as a reliever.

"We're going to go a little slow just because of the history, but he's coming in in a good position," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said this past week. "If he's healthy, he has a way of pitching himself into situations. I've seen him pitch well. It's just a matter of seeing that he's back to where he was then."

The road there has not been easy.

Daley, an undrafted free agent out of Bucknell who signed with Colorado in 2004, made it to the majors in 2009. He made a combined 92 appearances from 2009-11 before the shoulder injury ended his 2011 season.

The righthander hoped his rehab would last into early last season, setting him up to be back on a mound by mid-summer. But it never happened, and setback begat setback. He spent the summer, and into October, arriving at the team's minor-league complex at 7 a.m. for rehab.

Only in recent months has Daley, who won a state baseball title in 2000 with Garden City, felt his shoulder returning to normal.

"It was more the mental challenge of getting my hopes up each time things started going well and then that setback would happen and you're right back down to earth," said Daley, whose parents, John and Lynn, still live in Garden City. "That was the toughest part for me."

Daley went 1-2 with a 4.71 ERA with the Rockies, but Yankees scouts saw enough to recommend him as a situational reliever. Daley has held righthanded batters to a .237 average and .295 OBP in 87 career games.

"There's some track record of success," Yankees assistant general manager Billy Eppler said. "There's deception in his delivery that can upset a hitter's timing, righthanders especially. We find he's got the tools to contribute."

Like Eppler, Rothschild said the unconventional delivery, in which Daley crouches and seems to come to the plate with his arm almost at a three-quarter slot, is to his advantage.

"The funk plays into it because he throws strikes with it," said Rothschild, who saw quite a bit of Daley when he was the Cubs' pitching coach from 2002-10. "Guys coming out of the bullpen that have a different look often times have success if they can throw strikes and be able to spin the ball a little bit."

This camp is swarming with pitchers -- 42 at last count -- and Daley's chances of making the Yankees' Opening Day roster probably are remote.

"I'm coming in here to make a team," said Daley, who is likely to pitch in his first exhibition game Monday against the Orioles in Sarasota. "Now, I'm also realistic at the same point, and I know that odds are that's not going to happen and I'll probably go down to Triple-A. But I'm coming in here to make a team and at the very least make an impression for later in the year."

And bullpens, as GM Brian Cashman likes to say, are "volatile." Opportunities -- whether because of injury or poor performance -- almost always arise.

"Everyone hopes for perfect health and performance, but in a major-league bullpen, it's very rare that that happens," Daley said. "That's why they bring in so many pitchers every year, knowing that there's going to be some turnover. And if there is, I want to be the guy to take advantage of that."

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