Devil Rays' closer having a career year

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Al Reyes needed only 12 pitches, nine of them strikes, to dominate Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Howie Clark and save the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' 5-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in a game last week.

It was the 15th save in 15 opportunities for Reyes, a 37-years-old veteran who had only six saves in his previous 11 seasons in the major leagues.

Only J.J. Putz, Seattle's closer, who has 19 saves in 19 chances, has been more opportune this season.

Al Reyes


Relief Pitcher
Tampa Bay Devil Rays


Making those saves, however, has been the easiest part for Reyes, a true baseball and life survivor.

"Get three outs in the ninth inning is not that great," Reyes said. "Much more difficult is to get the opportunity to do it after all the things that happened to me in the past. I could consider myself a survivor, who has never stopped fighting, and never gave up."

Just consider how many obstacles the Dominican had to dodge before being named the official closer in Tampa Bay: two Tommy John surgeries, a shoulder clean-up, an almost fatal car crash and near 20 unnoticed professional seasons. And due to the most-recent Tommy John procedure, Reyes didn't pitch all of last season.

After a slow, but effective rehabilitation in 2006, Reyes signed a $750,000 one-year contract, with the intention of earning a spot in Tampa Bay's bullpen.

During spring training, Reyes showed that he had recovered his strength and was able to throw on consecutive days and challenge Seth McClung, Chad Orvella and Brian Stokes for the closer's role.

Even though McClung and Orvella were cut from the team and Stokes performed poorly in the spring, Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon didn't name Reyes as his official closer at the start of the season.

"Maddon simply told me that he planned to use me occasionally at the end of games," Reyes said. "He did not suggest I was going to be the closer."

Maddon gave Reyes the ball in the ninth inning on April 5 at Yankee Stadium and the right-hander answered the bell by recording the save, giving the Devil Rays their first victory of the season. Even though there wasn't an official announcement, Reyes became Tampa Bay's closer that moment.

Reyes, who is also 1-0 with a 1.95 ERA in 28 appearances, is sixth in the American League in saves and has 33 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings.

Reyes has a better ERA than Francisco Cordero (2.54), Jose Valverde (3.33), Francisco Rodriguez (2.51) and Trevor Hoffman (2.16), among others who have more saves this year.

"The way Reyes is throwing does not surprise me, but it does [surprise me] the way he is handling one of the hardest responsibilities in baseball," said Devil Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "Alberto is a hard worker and one of those people who can overcome any obstacle."

Tampa Bay is Reyes' seventh team in the majors and the eighth organization that he has played for since he first signed with the Montreal Expos in 1989, at age 19.

In 1991, he had surgery to clean up the muscles and tendons that surround the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and in 1995 he had his first elbow reconstruction.

But the worst accident Reyes had to overcome occurred off the field. Around Christmas time in 2000, Reyes lost control of his car on a Santo Domingo highway and almost fell into the Caribbean Sea. He was held from the water by some trees along the road where he crashed.

The way Reyes is throwing does not surprise me, but it does [surprise me] the way he is handling one of the hardest responsibilities in baseball.

Devil Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey

Reyes suffered several fractured ribs and a broken clavicle and left shoulder. He also needed a ligament transplant to get his shoulder repaired.

"I have someone else's ligaments in my left arm," Reyes said. "It's God's blessing that I didn't die that day. They found me near a cliff, outside the car."

After the crash, he played for the Angels, Yankees and Pirates from 2001-2003, before playing two years for the Cardinals (2004 and 2005). A second Tommy John surgery in October 2005 ended his time with St. Louis.

Tampa Bay showed interest in him and signed him even though it knew he was not going to be able to play in 2006. But now the Devil Rays are starting to see a return on their investment.

Reyes is on track to have the best season for a closer in Tampa Bay since Roberto Hernandez saved 43 games in 1999, and he could be a valuable trade subject in July.

"The Devil Rays [hold my] option for 2008 and I would really like to stay here," Reyes said. "I feel committed to them, because they believed in me when everybody thought I was finished.

"But after playing with eight different organizations and 22 teams in my career, I don't want to build up high hopes."

He added: "I am always ready to travel. I am a survivor and a baseball vagabond."

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.