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Rays now the team to watch

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 2000

This could be a dynamic week in Devil Rays medical history. Hit Show investments Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla are expected ASAP from the DL.

Fascinating timing, with first-place Toronto coming to Tropicana Field tonight, followed by World Series champion New York Yankees over the weekend, then the finish of a nine-game domestand against Detroit.

Sweet stakes.

These could be educational nights. Maybe even a chemistry lesson with sporadic return of three-quarters of Tampa Bay's expensive, renowned Hit Show muscle. It's been a June of Fred McGriff singing a solo, awaiting healing of the rest of his power band.

This is good, hammering news, but a handle-with-care transition seems advisable. Playing without Vinny, Greg and Jose, the D-Rays have generated the most productive, entertaining, eclectic, unexpected string of upbeat games in the franchise's three-season history.

[AP photo]
Jose Guillen slugs a grand slam Sunday night against the Rangers. Guillen is one of the many young players on the Rays who have excelled in the wake of injuries to veteran players.
"Our chemistry stays every bit as good with added talent," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "You look at the Vinny Castillas and Greg Vaughns of the world. It elevates us abilitywise. Their (personal) makeup is off the charts."

Vaughn is the leftfielder. No debate. His credentials are as fat as Greg's wallet. But what about Bubba Trammell, a popular Trop character who has repeatedly delivered?

Canseco is more arguable. At 35, being injury-prone, Jose should be strongboy trade bait. DH considerations have been earned, in recent weeks, by Steve Cox. He could alternate with Trammell. If the Rays can snag a useable pitching arm for Canseco, they should deal.

Castilla is yet to rediscover his Colorado power stroke, but Vinny was entering the suburbs of base-hit productivity when he went lame. He is the third baseman, which means manager Larry Rothschild must react on behalf of a suddenly imposing Bobby Smith.

Smith is an intriguing study, even without the 21st century peroxided hair. Early in the 1998 season, he was considered a gifted Rays prospect. But then everything went south. Bobby would soon have no clue. No chance. Back to the minor leagues.

We wondered if Smith might be gone forever. He looked that bad. But then, refreshed in Durham, he reappeared June 14 and has been a superior threat. Almost certainly, Smith will become the everyday second baseman, leading to frowns from erstwhile regular Miguel Cairo.

Watching the Rays on their 3-3 trip to Seattle and Texas, with no Vaughn-Canseco-Castilla, the fun kept increasing. Clutch hitting seemed better than ever. Pitching got tougher when it counted most.

After too many months of nightly wondering "What ways will they invent to lose this one?" there was an evolution of my viewer mentality. Until a misplayed bottom of the sixth Sunday night against the Rangers, there unquestionably had blossomed a feeling of "I really think they may find a way to win this one."

Significant progress.

Felix Martinez pulled a mental/physical blunder in that sad sixth at Texas, wheeling mindlessly to make a wild throw to third base, busting open the Arlington dam. But that was a rare departure. This fellow, since deposing Kevin Stocker as Rays shortstop, has been remarkable.

Felix made more exotic defensive plays in June than Stocker achieved in more than two seasons. Martinez is smooth, athletic, flashy and dares to be extraordinary. It was that flamboyance that cost him at Texas, but let's not say anything to squelch creative wonderworks. Felix has hit better than anticipated. He seems a golden find.

Jose Guillen showed crunching swatches of promise back with Pittsburgh, but the Pirates sniffed some down sides and quickly gave up. He's a work in progress but Guillen in rightfield has become a semi-staple, maybe due to some platooning with Cox and Trammell. Quinton McCracken may be struggling his way out of town.

Options are mushrooming.

Attendance is June-zooming at many major-league stadiums. Will it happen at Tropiciana Field? No more distractions of NBA Finals or NHL playoffs. Football is on vacation, even in Europe where Danny Wuerffel celebrates with Galen Hall and the champion Rhein Fire.

So far this month, the D-Rays are 13-9, a far better record than the Yankees (9-12), Red Sox (8-15), Indians (12-13) and Rangers (7-14). Shouldn't the Tampa Bay citizen excitement be rising? Also our baseball pride and hopes.

Hit Show aside.

Do yourself a favor; see Martinez in person. Sit in the rightfield bleachers and bellow "Bubba!" if that's a Trop turn-on. So many reasons to go, including some that weren't there in the past. Toronto has been the AL East's hottest team in June (14-8), taking the division lead.

Yankees ... enough said.

If the moldy saying is right, that "America loves an underdog," it would seem to make it fun to check out Martinez, Smith, Guillen, Cox, Trammell and some of the others.

Then, of course, there is the impending reunification of Hit Show.

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