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Devil Rays running into a big mound of problems

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Let's simplify. Blame the Devil Rays' struggles on Wilson Alvarez, Juan Guzman and Roberto Hernandez.

Anticipation was, those three would be the infectious, dependable, hard-throwing 2000 soul of Tampa Bay baseball ascendancy. Instead, the experienced and expensive pitchers have become the hurting poster guys of D-Rays shortfall.

Together, their salaries are $21-million. We wait, we wonder if/when an applicable Alvarez/Guzman/Hernandez term of this season can become money's worth.

There've been ballfield malfunctions, but even nastier medical fortune. Alvarez has gone gimping into his third Rays season of being injury-prone, mound-erratic and dramatically disappointing.

Guzman, a new Ray, bummed his right shoulder in spring training. Attempting one April start, Juan was floored with pain and got smacked around for eight runs in 12/3 innings. Drydocked since.

In closing, there's Roberto.

Maybe it's just one of his funks. A bad patch. Short-term trauma. Still, it disturbs. Last year, Hernandez was voted team MVP. Forty-three saves. Just four blown opportunities. In 2000, the aggressive right-hander has just two saves; he already has blown three.

Hot streak needed.

Predictably, there will be a Roberto bounce-back. For starters, with each ninth-inning assignment, this man with 236 career saves can be far more effective against the first enemy hitter he faces. Getting that beginning batter has, throughout baseball history, been a monstrous key. Roberto has been miserable.

In his 12 appearances, the $6-million bull of the Tampa Bay pen has allowed six leadoff hitters to reach base. Four hits. Two walks. For a century, since Ty Cobb was a Tiger cub, it has been pitching poison to allow leadoff batters to get on.

A few days ago, I heard a nuclear major-league stat. When a leadoff batter reaches base, his team has a 50-50 chance of scoring at least one run. Conversely, when the first hitter is retired, his side scores less than 20 percent of the time. So, an efficiency of 50 percent by Hernandez isn't close to getting it done. Such stuff will keep the boos, botched saves and miseries coming.

"What I'm seeing is just one of the tough stretches any short reliever goes through," Rays manager Larry Rothschild said. "Roberto will snap out of it and save a lot of games this season."

Larry prays.

Alvarez and Guzman, both infirmed with aching shoulders, should be back on the job in late May. If they, along with Hernandez, ever approach being $21-million worth, these D-Rays have a real chance to win not just half their games (81) but as many as 85 or 90.

Oh, baby, check my pulse.

Their batting order is competitive, even if Tuesday night's run of zeros against Texas suggests otherwise. Powerful. Entertaining. Tampa Bay has the American League's third-highest team batting average. As the pitching has wobbled, with no Alvarez or Guzman and an all-too-inefficient Hernandez, the D-Rays have been offensively solid, scoring five runs or more in 17 of 25 games.

If the Rothschild pitchers, or at least those left standing, had generated anything sweeter than a 6.15 ERA, Tampa Bay easily could have a record of 14-11 or 13-12. Instead of frowns, we would see smiles.

Their lucky number: seven.

When scoring seven runs or more, the Rays are 7-1. When producing less than seven, they are a ghastly 2-15. Tampa Bay's baseball enjoyment can increase dramatically if Wilson/Juan/Roberto get cranking in money's worth mode, allowing their troupe to accomplish a moderate number of wins even when making less than a touchdown a game.

Guzman has a reputation as a hungry competitor. Lots of mound guts. What a help if he gets healthy and wins 12 to 14. Hernandez, the Rays must trust, eventually should be more like his 1999 self and less like his antsy April. Alvarez is the monumental X-factor.

So what's news?

You hope Wilson is straining both body and brain to become the 15-game winner that, at a minimum, is expected of a $9-million starter. You wish Alvarez would have a leaner, firmer look. His talent is obvious. His determination gets quietly questioned, even among comrades. "Wilson is," Rothschild said, "working hard."

I don't like talking about money. It gets tiresome in over-greenbacked 21st century sports. But these three arms, they are a huge Tampa Bay investment. They will decide, I'm guessing, whether this season goes down as handsome or not so.

Any time you're ready, fellows.

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