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Youngsters finally coming around

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2005

How about something positive this week?

In case you haven't noticed, the Rays have played some pretty good baseball since the All-Star break. They have been competitive and, believe it or not, fun to watch.

Notable for fans who have heard ad nauseam that the future of the team lies with the kids: The kids, generally, are carrying the load. Carl Crawford, Jorge Cantu, Scott Kazmir, Chad Orvella, Seth McClung and Jonny Gomes to name a few.

It hasn't always been pretty. But a case can be made that most of Tampa Bay's young players have improved since the season began, and that, at least, is a step in the right direction.

DEWON BRAZELTON, 25: Has been okay in the bullpen since returning from whatever journey he was on during his unauthorized absence, but the right-hander and opening-day starter took a big step back from last season.

JORGE CANTU, 23: Has played half the season at third base, half at second and the long-range plan might be to move him to first. Doesn't seem to bother Cantu, who went into the offseason promising to develop some power and entered Saturday leading the team with 15 home runs and 64 RBIs. Much-improved in the field, though more needs to be done.

CARL CRAWFORD, 24:The speedy leftfielder has career highs of 12 homers and 56 RBIs, leads the AL in at-bats and is near the top in triples, steals, hits and multihit games. More power, better run production, continued stellar defense and a work ethic and competitiveness that belies his easy-going manner. Can't get much better than that.

CASEY FOSSUM, 27: Not exactly a kid but an example of growing into a job. Has been much more consistent since moving into a starting role and brilliant in his past four starts: 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA. Smart on the mound, gives his pitches many different looks and is durable.

JOEY GATHRIGHT, 24: Still a mystery as to what he can bring mostly because he does not get consistent playing time. He's fast, we know that, and has shown glimpses of added pop in his bat. JONNY GOMES, 24: Everyone knew Gomes could hit the ball a long way, so his 12 home runs aren't a surprise. The best part of this story is his competent play in rightfield. Even manager Lou Piniella said Gomes was going to be used as a DH. But he can cover some ground and has a decent arm. And he's willing. Confident and a good clubhouse presence.

NICK GREEN, 26: Has hit a wall with, entering Saturday, 12 hits in his previous 60 at-bats. The second baseman takes his failures hard and is a regular in the batting cage before batting practice. Green is steady in the field with a strong arm and good range. If he could regain the stroke he had earlier in the season he would be quite an asset.

DAMON HOLLINS, 31: Another non-kid, so to speak. But the outfielder is a rookie and has had to adapt to the pressure and the grueling pace. Hollins admitted he felt fatigue as he slumped leading up to the All-Star break, but used the time off well and came back rejuvenated. Has the hard-nosed attitude Piniella likes and has been competent in the field after some early gaffs.

SCOTT KAZMIR, 21: A 95 mph fastball and bulldog mentality. What has been so promising, though, is his willingness to adjust. When he wasn't hitting his spots earlier in the year, the left-hander moved his setup position on the rubber. And while he has problems in the first inning, Kazmir learned there are still eight more innings.

SETH MCCLUNG, 24: Piniella admits he and his staff made a mistake putting McClung in the bullpen. With that experiment over for good, the right-hander has been free to work on his mental approach. McClung said he realized in Triple-A Durham the key is keeping emotions in check. Give up a home run? Forget it. Walk a batter? Strike the next guy out. McClung's 95 mph fastball doesn't hurt either.

CHAD ORVELLA, 24: Hard-nosed, fearless reliever. Dares batters to hit his 90-plus fastball. Not easily rattled to begin with, his confidence has grown since his callup from Double-A Montgomery. Could be the closer if Danys Baez is traded.

DOUG WAECHTER, 24: The struggle has been for consistency, and right now he seems to be winning. Waechter has the tools to be a successful starter. But a good arm usually can't overcome poor pitch selection and location. That is what has improved the past few outings. If the right-hander can stay healthy and aware of game situations, the struggle is winnable.

[Last modified July 31, 2005, 01:33:10]

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