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Reasons to be optimistic

Published Aug. 28, 2005

There are plenty of times when things look pretty bleak for the Devil Rays. But there also are nights like Friday when the future can look pretty promising.

Doug Waechter rediscovered his form and pitched crisply into the seventh. Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli raced around the bases. Aubrey Huff and B.J. Upton hit balls out of the park. And the Rays beat the Blue Jays 11-4 on a chilly Canadian evening to match their 2003 total of 63 wins.

The victory moved them four games ahead of the Jays, with 17 to play, in their bid to avoid finishing last for the seventh straight season, and to within seven of reaching 70 wins for the first time.

It also illustrated what manager Lou Piniella was saying hours earlier: that core of young players is solid enough that with the right additions the Rays are not that far from _ finally _ being a competitive team.

Piniella, of course, has big plans, wanting to add pitchers good enough to be Nos. 1 and 2 in the rotation and hitters worthy of batting third and fourth in the lineup, moves that seem too pricey given the Rays' plans for a modest payroll increase.

But, still, there is some reason for optimism.

"We know exactly what we need; it's a question of hopefully being able to get it," Piniella said. "We've been in third place a good portion of the summer and it goes to show you that with some improvement we can compete. If you add to this the right way, this thing here can accelerate forward."

Waechter can be a key part of the process.

After last year's impressive September, the Rays were counting on him as a mid rotation starter this season, and perhaps even more in the future. But an inconsistent spring and a finger injury that sidelined him for more than two months dimmed some of the promise.

Making a few slight adjustments after a pair of rough starts since rejoining the team, Waechter found comfort in his old delivery Friday, and found a groove. He allowed two-run homers in the first and seventh innings when he made mistakes on pitch selection, but otherwise looked to be back in form, albeit against a Toronto lineup featuring four rookies. Waechter allowed only two singles during the five middle innings and retired 12 straight in one stretch to win for the first time since June 2.

"He was much better all around," Piniella said. "He had a nice effort."

Said Waechter: "I'm starting to feel like my old self again."

Crawford stole his team-record 56th base and scored twice, extending his single-season runs record to 95. Baldelli notched an RBI in a team-record eighth straight game. Huff hit his 26th home run, and pushed his RBI total to 95.

But the most impressive hit belonged to Upton.

If the Jays were making a statement by intentionally walking Jose Cruz to bring the 20-year-old rookie to the plate with two on and two out in the seventh inning of a 6-2 game, Upton provided a dramatic response, crushing Sean Douglass first pitch for an opposite-field home run, his fourth in 34 games.

"That's kind of what I was thinking to myself _ if they're going to walk somebody to get to me, I better do something," he said.

Piniella noticed.

"I didn't realize he's as strong as he is," Piniella said. "He hit that ball like a young Alex Rodriguez."