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Rays' staff gives reason for optimism

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The record remains unsightly. The level of prestige hovers somewhere between dark and dreary.

When they returned home to Tropicana Field on Thursday night, the Devil Rays had the end of the season in sight.

So why does that seem like a bad thing?

Soon, the losing will end. The lights will go out, and the doors will lock. The Rays likely will have passed 100 losses and will have justifiably claimed the worst record in the American League.

So why does it seem a few extra games might be fun?

It is an odd phenomenon. A mix of pleasure and pain. Even when losing games, the Rays seem to be gaining ground.

It might be unrecognizable beyond Tropicana Field, but the Rays are slowly creating an identity. A poor club that is rich in young pitching.

Ryan Rupe proved it again Thursday night. Just like Joe Kennedy a couple of days earlier. And Jesus Colome. And Nick Bierbrodt. And Bobby Seay.

There is a lot to like about this staff. Their arms. Their tenacity. Their peach fuzz.

"You either have to be able to develop your own pitching or spend a lot of money in the free-agent market, and that's something we're not going to be able to do," manager Hal McRae said. "So we have gotten ourselves into a position to develop a staff; a rotation and a bullpen.

"We have power pitchers, and we have young pitchers. And that's the way to build a club. We're in pretty good shape pitching-wise."

If you are seeking models of success, there are plenty from which to choose. Look toward Minnesota. Or Oakland. Or even Houston. These are teams with low to moderate payrolls and a disproportionate number of victories.

This is the best way mid-size markets can compete these days. Scout, sign and develop a sturdy pitching staff. And when it is ready to come of age, spend a few extra bucks to pad the rest of the lineup.

It is not a foolproof plan. It does not allow a lot of margin for error. The window of opportunity is generally small, and the Rays still are years away from making that leap.

Yet the promise is there, even if the victories are not.

Kennedy and Bierbrodt are 22 and 23, respectively. Both are left-handed. Both have the potential to be effective starters in the top half of a rotation.

Colome is 21 and has a fastball that rivals some of the game's best. His arrogance might occasionally annoy his teammates, but it also makes him a more effective pitcher.

He has the potential to be a dominant closer, although the Rays might choose to stretch him out as a starter next season.

Tanyon Sturtze, 30, and Paul Wilson, 28, have been around longer but are just now making their marks in the game.

Suddenly, a staff that was abysmal in April and May has taken giant steps in the second half. Tampa Bay has a 4.29 ERA since the All-Star break, the fifth-best mark in the American League.

The 5-1 victory over Toronto on Thursday was the fifth time in the past eight games the Rays have given up two runs or fewer.

"We have the makings of a wonderful pitching staff," McRae said. "It's still not there yet. We have some growing to do, but the pieces are there to have a strong staff down the road."

This is the way general manager Chuck LaMar originally envisioned the Rays.

From the time he arrived, he stressed the importance of developing pitching and defense. It was a motto not unlike that in Atlanta, where LaMar made a name for himself as the farm director.

At the urging of ownership, the Rays veered from the plan in 2000 with a power-happy offense. That ill-fated detour is mostly to blame for the mess that has become Tampa Bay's 2001 record.

But while ridding themselves of various players in the past 18 months, the Rays also have been collecting arms. Sturtze came from the White Sox. Colome from Oakland. Wilson from the Mets and Bierbrodt from Arizona.

It has taken some time for the staff to grow, and there has been some low points along the way. This has not been a season of memories. It was mostly forgettable and occasionally regrettable.

Yet there are times when it is possible to look beyond the results. To see the beauty in the distance.

To know that while the record grew more dim, the future somehow seemed brighter.

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