tampabay.com

Rebuilt again and ready to go

Al Reyes is eager to reward Rays' faith in him after his second elbow reconstructive surgery.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published March 3, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Al Reyes has waited 17 months for today.

Since he heard that all-too-familiar sound - the pop of the ligament in his right elbow tearing - while delivering a pitch 17 months ago, he's been working for today's return to the baseball spotlight.

"There was no doubt," Reyes said of his comeback. "I knew that if I had surgery and I worked hard on my rehabilitation that I could come back.

"A lot of guys have that surgery later on in their careers and they come back 100 percent, no problems."

Reyes knows from experience, because this is the second time he's had reconstructive elbow surgery. After the first one, he had a productive 11-year major-league career.

Today, the 36-year-old Devil Rays reliever will pitch in his first game since the second injury to his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow.

"I've been waiting over a year to compete again," said Reyes, who is scheduled to pitch the third inning today against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. "I feel good. My arm feels good. I am ready to pitch. I'm ready to show them I'm back and ready to go. I don't think I'll be so excited that I will try to do too much the first day. I just want to go out there and pitch like I have my whole life."

When Reyes was injured, he was at the top of his game, helping the Cardinals through a pennant race. He ended the 2005 season with 11 straight scoreless outings and had allowed just two runs in his last 23 appearances. On the season, he ranked among the National League's top 10 relievers in ERA (2.15) and opponent's batting average (.177)

"The guy knows how to pitch, plain and simple," said Rays infielder Ty Wigginton, who faced Reyes in the Dominican Winter League. "His ball moves around. His ball gets on you quicker than whatever a gun reads."

The Rays hope Reyes can return to that form, which would be a huge boost to a bullpen that has few proven pitchers.

"He is a major-league pitcher," manager Joe Maddon said. "He could help almost anyone in the major leagues right now out of the bullpen - the breaking ball, the changeup, his savvy. He has this inner-confidence that I like (and) the experience. I think we're going to be pleasantly surprised by what he does."

Reyes nearly re-signed with the Cardinals after having Tommy John surgery Oct. 19, 2005. But when he became a free agent in May, he received a call from the Rays, who had invited Reyes to spring training in 2004. He had always liked Tampa Bay, even though he didn't make the team that season and eventually landed with the National League champion Cardinals.

The Rays signed Reyes last season even though both parties knew he might not pitch that year. But there was no rush. The team was willing to wait, even after Reyes shut himself down after throwing just three innings at Triple-A Durham.

In the offseason, the Red Sox were interested, but Reyes signed a minor-league contract with the Rays with a spring training invitation.

Now, he hopes to start paying the club back for its investment.

"Last year, I appreciated that they paid me to rehab," Reyes said. "I think ... they've treated me well. That's why I came here. I like the team here. Whatever happened in spring training in 2004, before I went to St. Louis, that was a different ownership, a different manager."

Eduardo Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.