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02/14/11 2:19 PM EST

Lueke moving forward with Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Josh Lueke knows he's going to hear the questions from reporters. Knows he's going to catch flak from fans. Knows there are always going to be those who wonder about his past.

All he asks is that people keep an open mind and judge him by what they see going forward as a pitcher and person.

Lueke spent 40 days in jail in 2009 after pleading no contest to false imprisonment charges in a Bakersfield, Calif., case involving a woman who alleged she'd been raped after going out drinking with several members of the Class A Bakersfield Blaze in '08.

Lueke, one of the top relief prospects in the Mariners' farm system since being acquired in the Cliff Lee trade with Texas last July, now has an excellent chance of landing a job in Seattle this season. He's a 6-foot-5 right-hander with a fastball in the upper 90s and a nasty splitter.

And, yes, a story he knows isn't going away even though his probation is scheduled to end this week.

Lueke doesn't speak specifically about the charges against him, but insists he is not a troublemaker and never has been a big party guy.

"Players and people that know me know it was just a freak accident kind of thing," Lueke said as he and his fellow pitchers reported to Mariners camp. "They're not judgmental. Open-minded people will take you for what you are and get their own perspective versus someone who strictly reads the paper or has never met you before.

"I really don't worry about what people think," he said. "I guess I never have. I just try to stay positive in my day-to-day. Like my dad says, you were born with thick skin, so just keep it."

Lueke says the year he had off from baseball in '09 after being suspended from the Rangers' organization wound up actually helping his career. The time away from the game allowed a shoulder impingement to heal. And he says he grew up in that span as well, gaining a maturity that carries beyond the ball field.

Instead of being the guy who thought he already knew everything , he listened to former Mariners pitcher Brad Holman, his manager at the Class A Hickory Crawdads in the Rangers' farm system, and began working on a new delivery.

Before long, a fastball that clocked 92-93 mph had risen to 97-98 as he posted a 0.46 ERA in 17 relief appearances before a promotion to Double-A last season. He wound up being traded to the Mariners and pitched extremely well at Double-A West Tenn, and then Triple-A Tacoma, before following up with an excellent Arizona Fall League.

He credits Holman for sticking with him.

"He's unbelievable," Lueke said. "He tried the year before and that's when I got the shoulder impingement. I was working at it, but couldn't figure it out. I guess the year off and a year of maturity, everything started sinking in. I started getting out of the 'I know more than everybody else' kind of thing. Whatever anybody said to me, I took in and tried it at least. I'm very thankful for meeting that man."

Now he's on the brink of his Major League dream, though he knows the bullpen competition will be fierce after general manager Jack Zduriencik brought in a number of veterans to compete for roles.

"It's definitely huge," he said of his first big league camp. "Just the whole chance of getting to play with guys like Felix [Hernandez] and Erik Bedard, people I've seen for years now coming up through the system. Being in their presence and seeing how they go about their business and trying to carry myself in my own manner and taking in different perspectives from everyone else, it's going to be a very exciting camp."

Lueke knows his past will be a frequent topic as he pushes forward, but says he'll stay positive while keeping the focus on baseball.

"I've always been a pretty stick-to-myself kind of guy," he said. "Not real big on going out and partying or doing anything. I don't like the whole scenario of going out and wasting money on alcohol or cab rides. I never really got into that. I kind of always try to surround myself with more positive people, guys like Matt Mangini and Blake Beavan, class-act kind of guys."

How did his situation change him?

"I feel like I'm the same person, just more of the maturity level," Lueke said. "I've now seen what can happen to you when you don't think anything can happen."

Lueke has grown in more ways than one. He says he was 5-foot-9, 110 pounds as a high school senior in Covington, Ky., where he played point guard on the basketball team for two years and was a light-hitting second baseman and shortstop as well as a pitcher.

He says he's hit two home runs his entire life, from T-ball on up, and never had any size until growing six inches before his freshman year at nearby St. Catherine College, a Division II school. He later transferred to Northern Kentucky, where he was drafted in the 16th round by the Rangers in '07.

Now he stands at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds and appears to have a promising future in an organization that has supported him since his arrival.

"They're open-minded and judge me for what I can do on the field and who I am now off the field," he said. "People can look at one incident in your life and judge you for the rest of your life, or they can be open-minded and see what you're really about."

And if he makes the Mariners' 25-man roster?

"In my eyes, that would be the greatest achievement for me," Lueke said. "But there's a great amount of talent in this clubhouse with all the vets and stuff. If it does happen, I'll be super surprised. If it doesn't, I'm not going to be displeased. I'll go to Tacoma or wherever and try to earn my way back that way."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.