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By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- If the Rays want Esteban Yan to take on the task of replacing closer Roberto Hernandez, Yan is up for the challenge.
"This is big for me," he said. "I know they believe in me and I want to give it 100 percent."
There has been little question about Yan's arm strength and pitching ability since the Rays made him their ninth pick in the 1997 expansion draft. The issues have always been how to get Yan to maximize his ability and how he should best be used.
Yan had been a starter in the minors, but the Rays used him effectively in a setup role in 1998 and not as effectively again in 1999, when he was bothered by shoulder problems. They put him back in the rotation last season, but that didn't work too well (5-7, 6.60 ERA in 20 starts) and he returned to the bullpen for good in late July.
Yan, who had Lasik eye surgery on Friday, is a playful and agreeable type, but he is serious about his new assignment. "I don't want to move around; right now I'm looking forward to this," he said. "I'm getting the chance and I'm excited."
While Yan has proved to be effective in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, he doesn't have much experience in the ninth. He had four saves in the minor leagues and has converted just one of his 10 save opportunities with the Rays.
But he says his winter-ball experience in his native Dominican Republic, where he at times has been a closer, will serve him well.
"I know how to close games," Yan said. "One-two-three."
READY TO ROLL: Word from Mexico continued to be good about Vinny Castilla, who hit .360 with 21 RBI in 20 games and helped his Hermosillo team into the Caribbean Series championship. Castilla told ESPNdeportes.com that his injuries, and struggles, of last season are behind him and that he is not concerned about rumors the Rays may trade him.
"I needed to get myself into playing shape before going to spring training and now I can say that I feel all is well," Castilla said. "I had a good season here and now I feel ready to play over there, wherever that may be because I don't know if I will be in Tampa Bay. What I had to make clear was that I was ready to play."
CAIRO CARPING: Miguel Cairo, the former Ray, was also in the Caribbean Series, and he managed to find his way into a little spitting match. Released by the Rays, Cairo could do no better than a minor-league contract with Oakland, where he will compete against top-notch prospect Jose Ortiz.
"I'll win the job because I have more experience," Cairo said. "If Cairo was so sharp," replied Ortiz, the Pacific Coast League MVP, "why is he fighting for a job?"
NAME GAME: Team officials say the decision to shorten Devil Rays to Rays had nothing to do with any lingering public opposition to use of the word devil. In fact, Major League Baseball's Anne Occi, who was in on the original name selection in 1995, said no one ever expected any complaints because the team was named after an animal.
"We had worked so hard and never, ever entertained that reference," Occi said. "Not in one of the meetings did anyone ever say, "Hey, what's the symbolism?' And, really, if you did take that symbolism, that's very aggressive, bold. It's a whole other feeling and this club has never represented that."
LaMAR'S VIEW: Answering questions from fans at Saturday's FanFest, general manager Chuck LaMar said this year's team "definitely should win 80 games;" he expects "in the next two months to make a trade for some type of relief help;" if all are healthy he expects the starting rotation to include Wilson Alvarez, Juan Guzman, Ryan Rupe, Albie Lopez and Paul Wilson; and if ready, prospect Josh Hamilton will play rightfield, leaving Greg Vaughn and Ben Grieve to share leftfield and the DH slot.
RAYS BITS: The Rays are among the teams interested in pitcher Ariel Prieto, the 31-year-old Cuban refugee who last season came back from reconstructive elbow surgery. ... In addition to the usual half-dozen teams expressing interest in catcher Mike DiFelice, the Rays have heard from the Royals about John Flaherty. ... There is talk of a mid-March autograph session featuring the big-name players who couldn't make the FanFest. ... Monday's final caravan stops: Bay Pines Veterans Hospital at 10:30 a.m., the PARC center (3190 Tyrone Blvd. N, St Petersburg) at 2 p.m., the St. Petersburg YMCA French Villas (54th Avenue N and 68th Lane) at 4 p.m. and a Clearwater Chamber of Commerce reception (Ruth Eckerd Hall) at 5:30 p.m.
AL LANG STADIUM, ST. PETERSBURG
TICKET INFO: Field box seats $14, loge box $11, reserved grandstand $9 and $6, general admission/berm $4. On sale at Tropicana Field box office and Ticketmaster.
CALL: (727) 898-RAYS, (813) 282-RAYS or Ticketmaster at (727) 287-8844.
(All games 1:05 p.m. unless noted)
1: Notre Dame
2: at Marlins
4: at Braves
5: at Phillies
6: at Blue Jays
10: at Reds
11: Phillies (ss)
11: at Twins (ss)
13: at Phillies
15: at Red Sox
Pirates at Mexico City
18: Pirates at Mexico City
21: at Yankees
22: at Indians
23: at Astros
23: at Astros
24: Blue Jays
25: at Rangers
26: at Red Sox
28: Red Sox
29: at Blue Jays
31: at Tigers