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Alvarez sharp in his return

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Surprised by what he was seeing, Rays manager Hal McRae turned to his pitching coach after two pitches Saturday and asked if Wilson Alvarez was throwing too hard.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Surprised by what he was seeing, Rays manager Hal McRae turned to his pitching coach after two pitches Saturday and asked if Wilson Alvarez was throwing too hard.

"I thought he was going to want me to slow him down," Jackie Brown said.

To the contrary.

Nearly two years since he last pitched with the Rays, Alvarez looked surprisingly sharp in two innings against Atlanta. The Braves won 3-2 before an announced 5,032 at Florida Power Park.

"I'm glad I got it out of my system," said Alvarez, who has missed the past two seasons after surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in May 2000. "I still have a long way to go. It's only two innings. There are many more games to go and many more innings to go.

"Like I've said before, I'm here to earn a spot. I've got to go out there and prove to them that I can do it."

Nineteen of his 29 pitches -- 27 fastballs, 1 changeup, 1 curve -- were strikes. He struck out three, allowed one hit and consistently threw in the 90-91 mph range.

"I caught him last year four or five times and it was a 110 percent difference," catcher Toby Hall said. "He had command of everything. He was really good."

Alvarez, who reported no pain after his outing, is vying for the No. 5 spot in the rotation with Ryan Rupe and Dewon Brazelton. Rupe and Brazelton are scheduled to throw against the Phillies on Monday.

"He makes us a much better staff if he's healthy," McRae said of Alvarez. "This is just the first time out. We're optimistic, but I know there's a long way to go."

GIMME THE ROCK: Steve Kent could have huffed over the circumstances, but instead made a favorable impression on McRae when called to relieve Jesus Colome with bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning.

"He came to the mound, we had a chat and all he wanted was the ball," McRae said. "So that was impressive from a young kid. ... I was explaining the situation and apologizing for bringing him in. He just wanted the ball."

Kent, 0-3 with a 2.20 ERA for Class-A San Bernardino last season, pitched 12/3 innings and struck out one.

"I wanted to jump out and make a good first impression," the left-hander said. "Since I'm a reliever it's kind of a situation that I've been in. And because I'm a younger guy, I've got to take advantage of every opportunity I get."

BUDDY SYSTEM: Among those who helped convince outfielder Greg Vaughn to sign with Tampa Bay in 1999 was Braves rightfielder Gary Sheffield.

"He thought they had the opportunity to win and they were going to try to win," Vaughn said. "Fred (McGriff) was here, (Jose) Canseco. Now it's going in the other direction."

SCREEN STAR: With the actor who portrays him in the soon-to-be-released movie The Rookie on his right, former Rays pitcher Jim Morris delivered one final strike at Florida Power Park.

He and Dennis Quaid threw out the first pitches.

"I have no gripes at all," said Morris, the former teacher who had a storybook rise to the majors in 1999. "Just being able to come out and play this game, even for a short time, is what I wanted to do since I was a kid.

"Having that opportunity made me relax. I can come out and talk to these guys and be relaxed and have a good time."

ODDS AND ENDS: Bobby Smith will play third base if he returns from a sprained right ankle as expected on Tuesday. Smith would have been at first base today, but Aubrey Huff will start there in his place.... Shortstop Chris Gomez and outfielder Ben Grieve are expected to make their spring debuts against the Phillies on Monday.

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