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Rays hoping to start out on the right foot

No guarantees from Larry Rothschild, but team's likely rotation is having a strong spring.

Albie Lopez, Bryan Rekar, Paul Wilson, Ryan Rupe, Travis Harper.

Those are not necessarily the names envisioned for the starting rotation by Rays fans, who were hoping for significant upgrades this season, or by team officials, who fill out lineup cards and paychecks.

But unless there are unanticipated developments, such as speedier-than-expected returns by Wilson Alvarez and/or Juan Guzman, they just might be the best the Rays have to open the season.

And, from the early returns this spring, they just may be good enough.

"There's other people who could enter the mix as we go along and I'm not going to discount that, and I'm not going to say that if Guz and Willie are not ready opening day that they are the sure five because they're not," manager Larry Rothschild said. "But the way they've pitched, they've gone a long ways toward getting to that point."

In their own way, each of the five already has answered a number of questions this spring.

Lopez has shown his solid performance after moving from the bullpen to the rotation in May was legit. Rekar has shown his improvement with steady second-half work last season was too. Wilson has shown that he is healthy enough and good enough to succeed and even dominate. Rupe has shown he is over the circulation problems that ended last season early. Harper has shown he is ready to pitch successfully in the major leagues.

Proof?

Rekar and Wilson each have strung together nine scoreless innings across three outings, and Harper has seven clean innings, plus two more in the exhibition against Notre Dame. Lopez has allowed three runs in eight. Only Rupe, who was hit hard Thursday, has been less-than-stellar, allowing seven runs in 8 innings, but is pitching with no problems.

The starters' official spring ERA, not counting the college game or Lopez's three innings in the rained-out game Tuesday at Clearwater, is 1.86.

"There's nobody in that rotation that should surprise you by pitching good," Rothschild said. "They've all had some success, at least a little bit at some point, and they've done things right and gone about it the right way from the very first day. That gives you a chance to have that success, and it's been good to see.

"They've gotten ahead of guys, and they've thrown good pitches to do it. They've gotten the ball down. They've used a couple different pitches. They've done about everything you want them to do."

While the Rays are cautious to rule out potential developments, it seems more and more likely these are the five who are going to open the season.

In part, that's because they have done so well. But also because the Rays don't have many alternatives.

Matt White went into spring as a contender, but has not pitched in an exhibition game because the Rays have him working on specific aspects of his game they are reluctant to disclose. Phenom Jesus Colome, who is considered a future closer, has had an inconsistent spring and likely needs more work rather than a jump from Double A to the majors.

Tanyon Sturtze is probably too valuable in the bullpen to move back to starting. Ken Hill, Bobby Seay and Dan Wheeler are considered more likely to make it as relievers. Sean Bergman, who started 14 games for Minnesota last season, was released Thursday.

While the predictions have seemed to vacillate, it seems all but official that neither Wilson Alvarez nor Juan Guzman, despite setback-free progress in recoveries from shoulder surgeries, will be ready to open the season.

"For their rehabs, they're on track to do what we need them to do," Rothschild said. "They may not open the season, and the further we get the less likely it is, but I didn't expect it anyway."

Guzman, who is due $6-million this year after making one start last year, is further along, but the next game he pitches in will be his first of the spring. Harper's start today will mark the beginning of the fourth turn through the rotation and even if Guzman were to catch up in terms of arm strength, the Rays are unlikely to push him, especially with a 10-game trip April 6-16 to cold-weather cities Boston, Toronto and Baltimore. Most likely, he'd be back in the middle of the month.

Alvarez, the team's highest-paid player at $9-million, will throw his second batting-practice session today, and will need several weeks, even without setbacks, before pitching in games. A late-April, early-May target seems reasonable.

By then, the Rays like to think they could be in better shape.

"From the first day of camp, Albie Lopez and Bryan Rekar have handled things with more maturity and have come across as the major-league starters they have had the ability to be the past few seasons," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "And then you add to that Paul Wilson, who might not only be our best starter right now but one of the best starters in the American League, and we have a chance for a very competitive staff."

The rotation spin

These appear to be the Rays starters to open the season:

Name (age) Comment

Albie Lopez (29) 9-9, 3.89 ERA after joining rotation in May.

Bryan Rekar (28) 6-8, 4.33 ERA in 24-start stretch in 2000.

Paul Wilson (27) Healthy after going 1-4, 3.29 ERA in seven starts.

Ryan Rupe (24) 5-6, 6.92 ERA in sophomore-jinxed 2000 season.

Travis Harper (24) 3.07 ERA in final four 2000 appearances.

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