tampabay.com

Reyes a singular closer

By John Romano
Published May 10, 2007


You have, most likely, never seen anything like this. Nor has anyone else because it is nearing unprecedented territory.

Closers are just not created at age 37. Not out of nowhere. Not when they've spent parts of 16 seasons in the minors. And not when they showed up in spring training with six major-league saves to their name.

We are talking, of course, of Al Reyes. A bullpen vagabond who, in a month's time, has become one of the hottest closers in baseball.

"He is the anchor, " manager Joe Maddon said. "Without him, we would not be very happy right now."

Talk about your impressive saves. A year ago, the Rays were a team without much of a closer and Reyes was a pitcher without much of a future.

In some ways, the story of how they rescued each other will also be the story of how much success the Rays have in 2007. In Tampa Bay's 14 victories, Reyes has 10 saves and a win. His ERA is 1.20 and hitters are 1-for-31 against him in save situations.

"Those are ridiculous numbers, " Maddon said.

Particularly in their context. This is not Mariano Rivera and his wicked cutter. This is not Billy Wagner and his fastball, or Trevor Hoffman and his changeup. There is no grand body of work behind Reyes, and there is no eye-popping pitch that has suddenly expanded his arsenal.

This can only be explained as a case of perfect timing. Of a pitcher growing into his talent, and a team willing to take a risk.

"My career has been up and down, a lot of different teams, " Reyes said. "But I was never going to give up. If somebody was going to give me another chance, I was going to keep on pushing."

Oh, there were a couple of similar stories in 1945, when teams were grabbing old guys off the streets because so many players were fighting World War II. Jim Morris came out of nowhere in 1999, but his time was short and unspectacular. Billy Taylor's story has a faint resemblance, but he was a closer by age 34.

No, should Reyes continue anywhere close to his current pace, he will set the standard for a late-career emergence as a closer. Certainly for someone with such a paltry resume.

Since signing his first pro contract out of the Dominican Republic in 1988 - when Delmon Young was 2 - Reyes has had only two full seasons in the majors. Every other season was a carousel of minor-league stops with the occasional short layover in a major-league clubhouse.

For the most part, he came cheap, departed quickly and left few statistics in his wake. All in all, you had the makings of a forgettable career.

Except for this:

He refused to give in.

His career could have ended in 1995 when he had Tommy John surgery. Or when he bounced from Milwaukee to Baltimore to Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to New York in less than four years. Or, certainly, when he blew out his elbow on the last day of 2005 and had Tommy John surgery for a second time.

After that, his phone went quiet. Even coming off his best season, it was hard to generate interest for a guy in his late 30s, coming off major surgery.

Which explains why Rays vice president Andrew Friedman eventually called. The Rays do not have the funds to compete for high-priced free agents, so they have to be more creative when it comes to player acquisition.

Friedman was impressed by Reyes' work as a setup man in St. Louis in '05 and figured it was worth an investment of good will. The Rays gave Reyes a contract in the $200, 000 range, even while knowing he wouldn't pitch in 2006.

"Signing the deal allowed him a chance to rehab and gave us a chance to get to know him better and see him up close, " Friedman said. "He's always been a strike thrower who misses a lot of bats, and competes extremely well. In our situation, this kind of deal is worth the chance."

Tampa Bay's generosity did not guarantee Reyes would sign here in '07, but it probably improved the chances. And, after establishing his arm was recovering nicely in the offseason, Reyes had offers from both the Red Sox and the Rays.

The contracts were similar, but the opportunities were not. In Boston, he was not guaranteed a roster spot. In Tampa Bay, if he was healthy, he was going to be a late-inning pitcher.

"I said to my agent, 'Let's go back to Tampa.' They signed me, they paid me to recover, " Reyes said. "I'll have a better chance, a better opportunity in Tampa. And they were very good to me last year. They were the only team interested in signing me when I was hurt. That was payback."

He does not have the best arm in Tampa Bay's bullpen. He doesn't even throw as hard as some guys in Triple A. Instead, Reyes thrives with smarts and attitude. He locates pitches. He changes speeds. He is aggressive and he is fearless.

It has taken nearly 20 years for all of this to come together. For the right combination of health, experience and opportunity.

It has turned into the chance of a lifetime for Reyes.

And, perhaps, an unprecedented discovery for the Rays.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Fast Facts:

 

Al on TV

See Rays closer Al Reyes on The Bays-Ball Show at 8 tonight (Catch 47) when he talks about what it takes to finish off a game.