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Ace out to prove himself again

A year after pondering retirement, the Rays' Jeremi Gonzalez hopes to build on impressive comeback season.

By TOM JONES
Published February 27, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - One word. Devil Rays pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez gave a one-word answer to what was going through his mind one year ago.

"Retire," he said.

Walk away, give up, go home.

No one would have blamed him if he had picked up his suitcase with his twice surgically repaired right pitching arm and walked out the door on his rebuilt left knee.

After three major surgeries in three years and nearly five years removed from his last major-league game, Gonzalez had every reason to pack his belongings and head back to Venezuela. For good.

A solid stint with Texas' Triple-A affiliate in 2002 had done nothing more than earn a nonroster invitation to Rays camp. And that did nothing more than get him demoted to Triple-A Durham before most of the Rays had gotten their cleats muddy.

"I was the first guy they sent down, so I said, "I'm not coming back anywhere,' " Gonzalez said. "But my family was behind me and they said go down and pitch good and see what's up."

What was up was Gonzalez, as in up with the Rays on May 17, and he didn't ride a minor-league bus again. He ended up with a team-leading 16 quality starts, a career-best 1561/3 innings pitched and six victories despite getting the sixth-worst run support in the American League and the bullpen blowing five leads.

Now, a year after he thought about retiring, Gonzalez might be the ace of the staff.

"I want to work harder than I did even last year," Gonzalez said. "I want to prove to everybody that last year was real. It was not easy. But they are going to give me the opportunity to pitch every five days and I don't want to let (manager Lou) Piniella down."

In 1997, Gonzalez showed the right stuff. He won 18 over two seasons with the Cubs. But then the injuries hit. Elbow surgery in 1998. Tommy John surgery in 1999. Knee surgery in 2000. He was tossed aside like a child's broken toy.

"Don't forget, he was a pitcher with incredible ability when he first came up," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "The only thing that slowed him down was injuries. But I don't think anyone ever doubted his ability."

The Rays, figuring they had nothing to lose, took what one might call an educated risk and brought Gonzalez in for a look.

"I guess you could say there was a bit of a gamble there, but there really wasn't," LaMar said. "We brought him in and let him get healthy and then we found out he still had the talent to pitch. So we really didn't see it as a risk at all. We knew he had the ability."

Gonzalez still is considered young by pitching standards. He turned 29 last month and his injuries, in a twist, helped him stay away from the wear and tear of logging 200 innings season after season. In other words, he's a young 29.

Most of all, Gonzalez, for the first time in years, is pitching with a clear head.

"Before, the surgeries were in my head and I wasn't sure if I would stay healthy," Gonzalez said. "Now I don't worry about it. I had the surgeries early in my career. My doctor said it was good that I had the surgeries before I was 30 because I was young enough to come back. Now I've proven to myself that I'm healthy because of how I pitched last year and that I didn't get hurt."

Gonzalez felt so good after last season that he pitched winter ball.

He started his offseason by working as a closer then switched to starter for a couple of weeks in January. Piniella commented that Gonzalez's winter pitching has him near top form as Rays camp gets under way.

"I want to prove to everybody and myself that I can pitch," Gonzalez said. "I want to get even better, improve over what I did last year."

That's a long way from contemplating retirement.

"I love baseball even more right now than yesterday," Gonzalez said. "Now it's all like a different story for me than a year ago. Now all I want is to play baseball."

AMONG THE BEST

Jeremi Gonzalez finished 5 2/3 innings shy of qualifying for last season's American League pitching leaders. If he could've squeezed in one more start and pitched the way he did all season, Gonzalez would have ranked among the leaders in these categories:

Tied with Roger Clemens for 15th in ERA (3.91).

Fourth in opponents batting average (.228).

Fifth in right-hander opponents batting average (.220).

Fifth in opponents average with runners in scoring position (.209).

Fifth in road ERA (3.08).

[Last modified February 27, 2004, 07:27:21]

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