Paybacks are swell for Rays reliever

Tampa Bay takes a chance on Al Reyes. He pays them back as unofficial closer.

Published April 20, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Al Reyes had felt the pop in his elbow before.

It was the final game of the 2005 season, down to his last scheduled out, and Reyes, then 35 and with St. Louis, had torn ligaments in his throwing elbow, enough to need the same reconstructive surgery he'd had in 1995.

"I was a little older than I used to be," Reyes said this week at his locker at Tropicana Field. "It takes a little bit longer. I knew I'd have to do very good with the rehab just to come back."

More than a year later, Reyes is back and flourishing at 37 with his eighth major-league team.

In his first 11 seasons, he totaled six saves; he has five this month, a bastion of stability in an otherwise chaotic bullpen.

"He's a tremendous influence, not just in the age and the experience and the maturity, but also just the way he goes about his work," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He's even keel, not too high, not too low, with the focus on the execution of the pitches instead of trying to outstuff them out there. It's one of the things we need most."

Take away Reyes' six scoreless innings, and the Rays' bullpen ERA is 7.23. His team has only six wins, and yet only Detroit's Todd Jones has more saves in the AL this season.

"He's been our anchor, basically," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's come in to the game with this incredible, professional calm about him, and he's gone out and pitched very well on top of that. They look at him and they see the way it's supposed to be done."

Reyes, born in the Dominican Republic, was remarkably effective with the Cardinals bullpen in 2005, with a career-high 65 appearances and a 2.15 ERA, his best in a full season.

"He was as good as there was in short relief, and I got a firsthand look ...," said Hickey, who coached for NL Central division-rival Houston that year.

Left to free agency after his surgery, the Rays offered Reyes a minor-league contract for 2006, basically paying for his rehab, and he gave himself hope in September, returning for two appearances with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

He rewarded the Rays' loyalty by taking an option to return for this season.

"They knew I was hurt when they signed me," he said. "They took a chance on me, and I appreciated that. I wanted to pay them back."

He's allowed all of two hits in six appearances, converting all five saves, striking out seven and walking one. The rest of the bullpen is 0-for-3 in save opportunities.

Maddon hasn't officially made him the closer, waiting to see continued success, careful to test the limits of his elbow slowly and not push anything by pitching him on back-to-back days.

"He is everything I thought he would be," Maddon said. "I'm talking beyond his ability to pitch, this calm, this great approach to the day that I'd like the rest of our bullpen guys to absorb."

On baseball's youngest roster, he's the oldest player by more than five years, but with a new elbow and unprecedented success on the mound, Reyes doesn't feel out of place.

"There's a lot of energy here," he said. "They're always like that. We're not scared of anybody we face."