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Devil Rays in search of a savior

One thing the Devil Rays didn't figure to need this season was relief for their late-inning relief.

General manager Chuck LaMar made a concerted effort when constructing the team to acquire a number of veterans to fill key roles, and most integral was a proven closer, someone to make sure that the Rays won the games they had a chance to win.

The Rays signed Roberto Hernandez, whose 153 saves over the past five seasons ranked fourth in the majors, and figured the ninth inning rarely would be in question.

But five weeks into the season, Hernandez has become the team's biggest question mark.

The 33-year-old veteran has blown three of five save opportunities, and his struggles have become so profound that he has been temporarily taken out of the closer's role. Team officials spent their day off Monday discussing their options for late-game responsibilities, with Jim Mecir and Esteban Yan the most likely candidates.

Hernandez's problems are inexplicable. He has struggled with control, walking 18 batters in 13 innings. When he does throw strikes, he often gets hit; he has allowed 13. He has allowed 34 of 70 batters to reach base and retired the side in order just once in 13 games.

"It's been a lot of different things," manager Larry Rothschild said. "He just hasn't found that groove. He hasn't been as sharp as he has in the past."

The Rays and Hernandez say he is fine physically, that his arm strength and velocity (96-98 mph on some pitches) are fine despite some off-season shoulder tendinitis. Hernandez says his mental approach is good. No one seems to be able to say just what is wrong.

The Rays are going to take some of the pressure off by using him earlier, so he can pitch without the result in balance.

"He needs to get back out there, and we'll do what we can to bring him back, and bring him back in a fashion where he can get comfortable," Rothschild said.

The Rays say they have no doubt Hernandez can get back and prove his signing to a four-year, $22.5-million contract was worthwhile.

"There's no question in my mind, no matter how much Roberto has struggled early in the year, that not only is that a sound philosophy to get a closer to put yourself in a situation to win the games you need to win, but that Roberto Hernandez was the right guy," LaMar said Monday.

"Is he disappointed and are we disappointed over what has happened in the early part of the season? Yes. But in no way, shape or form have we wavered in our belief that Roberto not only was the right guy, but is the right guy to fill that role."

Hernandez has struggled before. With the White Sox in 1995 he blew 10 saves, allowed more than a hit per inning (63 in 59) and posted a 3-7 record and 3.92 ERA. But he worked through it and still saved 32 games, then saved 38 and 31 the past two seasons.

Hernandez remains confident he will turn this season around, too.

"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," he said after losing an 8-5 lead in the ninth at Cleveland on Sunday. "Right now my start's been horses---. I've got to put this game behind me, like the first month."

Hernandez said he thought he actually pitched well Sunday and had more bad breaks than bad pitches.

"But when you're going bad, every little break goes against you," Hernandez said. "But that's not going to stop me from working harder. You've got to keep trying, to go out and give it the same intensity again.

"You're only as good as how fast you get back up on your two feet. I've been through this before, more or less for a year and a half in Chicago, and I came through with flying colors."

Meanwhile, the Rays likely will put the next few close games in some less-experienced hands.

Mecir and Yan have pitched well, but between them they never have saved a major-league game. Yan, 23, was a starter through much of his minor-league career, and Mecir has been a middle reliever.

Mecir didn't allow a run in his first 10 appearances, and he has given up five runs and 11 hits in 15 innings over 14 games.

Yan made seven appearances covering 14 innings before giving up his first runs on Saturday. He is 2-0 and has allowed two runs and four hits in 16 innings, and struck out 15.

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