By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
SARASOTA -- Juan Guzman was on the mound at Florida Power Park early Saturday morning as the buses were pulling away to take the Rays to an afternoon game against the Reds. Judging from the way Guzman was throwing, he may not be left behind again.
Guzman pitched a three-inning simulated game and left the Rays impressed with his progress coming off shoulder surgery in June.
"He's come along great," manager Larry Rothschild said. "It's been as good a rehab as you're going to see."
Guzman, 34, made it through only 12/3 innings in his first season with the Rays before eventually succumbing to surgery. He said the best thing about Saturday's session was throwing hard again without pain.
"The shoulder is real strong. I feel healthy," Guzman said. "The main thing now is getting used to the challenge of facing hitters. You miss a year and you lose that edge you had against hitters."
With Guzman close to pitching in spring games, Rothschild said he would not rule out the possibility that the right-hander could be ready by opening day. It is more likely that Guzman will start off on the disabled list and join the team in mid-April when it returns from a trip to Boston, Toronto and Baltimore.
"Going into cold weather after the first three (home) games is going to be a consideration," Rothschild said. "If he is ready, he's ready and I'm not going to worry about it. But he's got to show me the arm strength is there, the stamina, the whole package."
Matt White also pitched three innings in the simulated game and showed signs of getting back to the rhythm that had Rays scouts raving at the end of last season in Triple A. White has been held out of exhibition games to work on the side in recent days.
"He's getting back to the point where he was last year," Rothschild said. "He just got out of his routine, but today he took a big step forward."
Wilson Alvarez threw in the bullpen Saturday morning and will face live hitters in batting practice for the first time on Tuesday.
WASTED RALLY:After coming back from a 3-0 deficit Saturday, the Rays lost 6-4 to the Reds for their third straight defeat.
Tampa Bay scored four runs in the sixth to take the lead, with Aubrey Huff and Bobby Smith driving in the first three and Andy Sheets getting a two-out single to drive in the go-ahead run.
Cincinnati went back on top with two runs off reliever Paul Spoljaric in the bottom of the inning.
OUCH:First-base umpire Mark Hirschbeck left the game in the bottom of the fifth after being struck in the lower right leg by a Michael Tucker line drive in foul territory. Hirschbeck dropped to his knees for several minutes before walking to the Reds clubhouse behind the rightfield fence. Reds officials said he suffered a bruise.
"I didn't see it, but I heard it," said Rays first baseman Steve Cox, who landed on the ground after diving for the ball. "And it didn't sound good."
STRAIGHT AHEAD: Rays starter Ryan Rupe has been working on opening up his delivery instead of throwing across his body. He does this by stepping in a straighter line toward home plate with his left leg.
Rupe had mixed success Saturday, getting ahead of hitters but failing to put them away.
"I would come straight home on a few pitches and then go back to the old way. I was fighting myself with it," Rupe said. "A couple of times I got myself out of synch."
BOUNCING BACK: Esteban Yan, who struggled during the first week of games, had his best outing of the spring. A contender for the closer's job, Yan gave up a ground ball single but otherwise pitched a perfect ninth.
"He got the ball down a bit more than he had," Rothschild said. "He used a couple of off-speed pitches well."