Rays need ace to emerge after rocky September

James Shields, right, with Eric Hinske, posted a 2.99 ERA in September but also gave up five runs in one start.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

James Shields, right, with Eric Hinske, posted a 2.99 ERA in September but also gave up five runs in one start.

ST. PETERSBURG — Starting now, what the Rays need is for someone to turn into Steve Avery. Except, of course, for the part where Avery's career later fell off a cliff.

Starting now, what the Rays need is for someone to turn into Andy Pettitte. Except, of course, for the part where Pettitte injected human growth hormone into his posterior.

Starting now, what the Rays need is for someone to turn into Curt Schilling. Except, of course, for the part about how the training wheels tend to fall off Schilling's mental balance.

Starting now, the Rays could use a burst of brilliance from the guys who are starting now.

James Shields or Scott Kazmir. Matt Garza or Andy Sonnanstine. For the Rays to prosper in these American League Pitch-Offs — oops, make that playoffs — they need their starting pitchers to measure up to the moment. No surprise there. In baseball, big games are won by the pitchers who swallow the pressure, who baffle the hitters, who master the moment.

"You could have called this game 'pitching' instead of 'baseball' from Day 1," is the way Rays manager Joe Maddon put it. "If you pitch better than the other guy, you win."

And now comes the money question:

How is the rest of Tampa Bay supposed to feel about that?

For most of the season, of course, the notion of the Rays' fate being in the grips of its young rotation would have sounded like a simply splendid idea. When you think about it, is there a bigger reason the Rays are even in the postseason?

Lately, however, that rotation has looked a little, well, wobbly. For the worriers out there, yes, there are reasons to be concerned.

As months go, September was not the best of times for the Rays' starting pitchers. Victories were down. ERAs were up. Home run balls became more plentiful. And the early innings were harder to negotiate.

September was the month Kazmir gave up four homers against the Red Sox and, two starts later, four more against the Tigers. September was the month Sonnanstine went 0-3 and Garza 0-2. Even Shields, steady Shields, gave up five earned runs in a start against the Twins. All together, through 20 starts in September, the Rays' remaining four starters combined for a 4-7 record with a 4.70 ERA.

When you consider that none of the four has ever started a postseason game, when you consider they form the youngest rotation since the '86 Mets (average age 24.6, ninth-youngest of all time), the days ahead look imposing.

Why, then, does Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey look so calm?

"I would be shocked if our starting pitchers didn't perform well," Hickey said Tuesday. "If we're going to have four, five starts, I'd be very surprised if we didn't have three, four starts where we have a chance to win the game. And really, that's all you can ask."

Hickey said the dip in the Rays' performance was "a red flag, something to be aware of, but not something to be overly concerned about."

Said Maddon: "It wasn't as if we had a bad month because of fatigue. They may have been applying a little too much pressure on themselves down the stretch. Personally, I think getting here is a lot more of a mental load than being here. Now you've made it to the dance, just relax and let everyone see what you can do. I actually think guys are better now than they were the last two or three weeks of the season."

Eventually, the Rays will also need their defense to be good, and they will need their bullpen to be good, and they must hope their hitting eventually shows up. But in the playoffs, a heavy load is always on the starting pitching. Remember Josh Beckett leading the young Marlins? Remember Randy Johnson and Schilling carrying the Diamondbacks? And on and on?

So who is it likely to be for the Rays?

Shields? The Rays love his steadiness. Shields is like a par golfer in a profession where most players swing from 6 under to 12 over. And frankly, he did have a good September (2-0 with a 2.99 ERA).

"You know what you're going to get with him," Maddon said.

Kazmir? "Electric" is the word Hickey uses. And at times, it fits. If Kazmir has command of his fastball, he can be a dominant pitcher. If he is out of synch, the electricity can be unplugged.

"If you see fastball command," Maddon said, "he will be as good as you have ever seen him in this series."

Garza? He hasn't had a dominant game for a while now, but when he is on, Garza can look unhittable.

"Stuff," Hickey said. "He can outstuff anybody."

Sonnanstine? He hasn't won a game since Aug. 18, but that didn't keep the Rays from leaving Edwin Jackson off the 25-man roster in favor of Sonnanstine. Although Sonnanstine was 0-3 in September, his ERA was 3.16, his lowest of the season.

"I thought he threw the ball better the last month than any time this year," Maddon said.

Together, they will try to throw the Rays into the next round. It isn't easy. Until a player performs in a game of this size, no one knows if he is a big-game pitcher.

Starting now, applications are being accepted.

Rays need ace to emerge after rocky September 09/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 5:00pm]

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