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Rays' Saunders: With a little more support . . .

. . . "He has a chance to be a good major-league pitcher," Rothschild says.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 1999


LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Tony Saunders showed Sunday that his surgically repaired left elbow is fine. He flashed a fastball that zipped into the low-90s with movement. He was able to make adjustments to the supposed new strike zone.

But what the Devil Rays seemed to like best was the way he handled his spring debut against the Atlanta Braves: He was aggressive, worked quickly and threw strikes during two hitless innings.

"For the first day, not too bad," Saunders said.

As he struggled through a 1998 season that can best be described politely as a learning experience, Saunders got away from attacking hitters. He also got frustrated, and -- thanks to the worst run support in the league -- got beat often, losing a team-high 15 games and suffering through a 16-game winless streak.

"I thought he went through a growing process last year," manager Larry Rothschild said. "Had he been rewarded with wins in some of those starts it might not have been as good as what happened. It was a test for him and he grew through that process."

The Rays tried to tell Saunders that at the time, but it's not something a 24-year-old wants to hear. Especially one who was the No. 1 pick in the expansion draft coming off a World Series championship season with the Marlins.

Saunders pitched well in spurts in 1998 but was infuriating to watch at times as he fell behind hitter after hitter. It wasn't until late August that he realized he had to pitch aggressively and throw more strikes to be successful. The epiphany came Aug. 20 in his hometown of Baltimore, and from there he won three of his final seven starts.

Overall, he was 6-15 with a 4.12 ERA, ranking first in the league in walks (111) and ninth in strikeouts (172) while throwing 1921/3 innings.

"The way I ended the season last year gave me a lot of motivation going into this year," Saunders said. "It would have been a longer winter if I had struggled at the end."

Actually, he wasn't all bad last year. In 22 of his starts, Saunders allowed three earned runs or fewer. His 4.12 ERA was 19th best in the league, though 61 pitchers won more games. (He had a lower ERA than 20-game winner Rick Helling, 19-game winner Aaron Sele and 17-game winner Tim Wakefield). His 3.51 runs per nine innings of support were a half-run less than any other AL pitcher received. His ratio of 8.05 strikeouts per nine innings was fourth among major-league lefties.

The Rays figure Saunders can be better -- considerably better -- if he pitches aggressively, gets ahead of batters early and realizes that every pitch is important.

"He has a chance to be a good major-league pitcher," Rothschild said. "How much above or below that depends on how much he continues his growth and improvement.

"Everyone in our organization thinks he has a chance to be one of the best left-handers in the American League. But to say that doesn't mean too much. It's going out and proving it."

Saunders sounds like he's ready for the challenge. The surgery to remove a bone chip was minor and his recovery was complete by mid-November. He admits that the lessons of 1998 -- while painful -- were learned. And he has a simple goal for this season.

"I'm tired of trying to establish myself. I got into that too much last year," Saunders said. "I'm just going to go out there and pitch 200 innings. That's my goal -- nothing else. I don't care what happens. ... If I go out and pitch 200 innings, the rest will take care of itself.

"I've proved I can pitch up here. I've proved I can get other guys out on a consistent basis. The guys up here know who I am. It's time for me to go out and do my own thing."

He always has the memories of last season to fall back on. "The guys told me last year, "You'll laugh at this someday,' and I was like, "Yeah, right,' " Saunders said. "I still don't find that to be true."

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