Officially, there's no Rays closer, but Al Reyes is 10-for-10 in saves

It's an open and shut case

May 13, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,Sun reporter

Nobody refers to Al Reyes as a closer, at least not in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' clubhouse. The title still eludes him as the saves pile up.

The phone rings in the bullpen, a slim lead in need of protection, and Reyes begins to throw. He enters the game, gets three outs and heads to the clubhouse.

If it looks and sounds like a closer, isn't it a closer? "I'm afraid to do that," Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't want to mess things up."

Reyes, who spent parts of two undistinguished seasons with the Orioles, is 10-for-10 in save opportunities, and opponents were 1-for-31 against him in those situations. He's 36 and coming off ligament-reconstruction surgery on his right elbow. His is a success story that nobody could have written, except a lover of fiction.

The numbers, however, are quite real: two runs and five hits allowed in 15 2/3 innings. Twenty strikeouts and only four walks. Right-handers batting .105 against him, left-handers .091.

And here's a real stunner: Reyes never accumulated more than three saves in a season until this year. He had only six in his career before joining the Devil Rays as a minor league free agent in March 2006.

This is a guy who's been around the block so many times, he should be dizzy. He signed his first professional contract, with the Montreal Expos, in 1988. The Devil Rays are his seventh team. But he still subjected himself to a grueling rehabilitation after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery in October 2005, causing him to miss the next season but never tempting him to retire.

"I wanted to continue to play," he said. "I thought, `Go ahead and do it and come back in 2007.' The mental part was the hardest. But last year I just set my mind to how I'd miss 2006 but I'd come back strong."

Dan Miceli was expected to close games for the Devil Rays this season, but they cut him late in spring training. Seth McClung, another candidate, was sent down to Triple-A Durham after botching his chance. Reyes basically inherited the job, or at least the responsibilities, by default.

He had the most experience. And he was as qualified as anyone, though he brought a baseball past filled with games where he was used in long and middle relief, and in a setup role.

"I was always looking for this opportunity," he said. "I found it here."

Said Maddon: "He grew into it based on his spring training performance. And when the season broke, I just felt like he was the most likely candidate to be given the first opportunity to be that person."

Reyes' fastball stays in the 89-91 mph range after topping out at 94 a few years ago. But he believes in changing speeds and location - methods that keep working for him.

"He also has this calm about him that was unique to our bullpen. We haven't had a lot of that," Maddon said.

"It doesn't matter who we're facing, what the count is, who's on base, he's the same cat. I've seen that. And God bless him. That's really nice. And we totally need that."

As a concession to his surgery, the Devil Rays don't use him more than two consecutive days, no matter the temptation.

"Regardless of what the situation is, he's not pitching three days in a row yet," Maddon said. "I think it's been twice where we could have used him that third day and it might have made an impact in a positive way for us, but I just won't do it. I don't think the short-term gains are worth what the long-term losses could be.

"If we mess this up with him now and overuse him because we're trying to win one game, and we lose him the rest of the season, the negative impact would be tremendous. I'm not willing to take that chance."

Reyes will continue to take the ball as long as his arm allows.

"Right now, I don't have any intent to quit," said Reyes, who pitched for the Orioles in 1999 and 2000. "If my body feels good, I'm going to keep playing."

And maybe, one day, he'll be given the title that goes with his ninth-inning duties.

"Since the season started, they didn't point to anybody in the bullpen and say, `You're going to be the guy,' " he said. "Nobody has a role. They handed the ball to me late in the game, and I'm trying to take advantage of it and try to do good."

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