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Garza injury continues Rays' bad fortune

Matt Garza leaves with head trainer Ron Porterfield after a nerve injury in the third.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Matt Garza leaves with head trainer Ron Porterfield after a nerve injury in the third.

ST. PETERSBURG — You can take the Devil out of the Rays, but I suppose it's a little harder to chase the demons from a franchise.

I mean, is it too much to ask for one day of giddy optimism? Nine innings of happy thoughts? Can we at least make it through the first home game of a season without irritating our radial nerves?

Ten years later, what have we done to deserve such an opening night?

You know, this was supposed to be a season of change in Tampa Bay. New name, new uniforms, new hope. Instead, one sellout into the season, already some old anxieties have returned.

In case you weren't paying attention, Rays pitcher Matt Garza was lifted in the third inning after six hits, three runs and one white flag in Tuesday night's home opener.

Struggling to throw strikes, Garza motioned toward the dugout after walking a .115-hitting DH and, just like that, Tampa Bay's biggest offseason acquisition was its latest casualty.

The official diagnosis was radial nerve irritation, which is probably worse than a hangnail but, presumably, better than Dewon Brazelton actually lacking nerve.

Best-case scenario is Garza misses three starts and is as good as new by the end of the month. But knowing Garza's value to the club, and knowing the desire to err on the side of caution, it's not a stretch to think he probably won't be back until mid May, or maybe beyond.

It's hard to overstate just how disappointing it was to watch Garza being escorted off the mound by trainer Ron Porterfield and hearing that he was heading to the 15-day disabled list. This, after all, was the guy you were looking forward to the most on Tuesday night.

If the Rays are to scale new heights as a franchise, it is the young pitchers who will get them there. That was going to be the difference between 2008 and every other Tampa Bay season.

Scott Kazmir came along in 2005, James Shields in 2006 and now Garza was here to push the envelope further. And if you saw the knee-bending curve he threw to strike out Adrian Beltre with a runner on third, you understand the size of his potential.

"We came into this whole thing looking at the big three and trying to find those other two spots," manager Joe Maddon said. "Now, all of the sudden, we're down to the big one and finding the other four spots. It's shifted rather quickly.

"But, what are you going to do? At least we have a better bullpen, and I think they can support these younger guys."

This shouldn't be read as all doom and gloom. Garza is 24 and hits the mid 90s on the radar gun, so you have to believe there are plenty of good times ahead.

But 22/3 innings? On his first start in a Rays home uniform?

Granted, it was not the worst Tropicana Field debut for a Rays pitcher. Juan Guzman lasted 12/3 innings in 2000 and was never seen again. Wilson Alvarez went 21/3 innings in 1998 and was seen far too often.

But it just seems so unfair when you consider the rarity of a Tropicana Field sellout, and the optimism of a new season.

Remember, a month or so ago, how everything seemed so fresh and cheerful?

The Rays were young, eager and more talented than ever. The payroll had taken a huge leap forward, and expectations had increased accordingly.

Since then, Kazmir has walked off a mound complaining about a twinge in his elbow. Rocco Baldelli has walked away from the clubhouse, perhaps forever. Dioner Navarro has slipped down the dugout stairs and Cliff Floyd's cranky knee sent him to the bench after five games.

And must I mention Ben Zobrist, too?

"There's been quite a few & but you don't cry about it," Maddon said. "I'm not going to bemoan the fact that we've had some injuries. It's part of the game."

So, of course, is second guessing. And may that game officially begin.

For as exciting as it is to have Garza in the rotation, you also know he arrived at a high cost. And you need only look in rightfield to be reminded of that cost.

The Rays are seven games into the season and already have started four different rightfielders. Delmon Young, meanwhile, is hitting .290 in Minnesota.

Sure, it's ridiculous to judge a major trade nine days into a season, but the comparisons between Garza and Young are inevitable. That's the burden Garza will forever carry, and that's the gamble the Rays made.

There's plenty of time for Garza to make us forget Young was ever here, but wouldn't it have been nice if we could have gotten started already?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Garza injury continues Rays' bad fortune 04/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 5:06am]

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