Sunday, April 28, 2002

Rijo enjoying it while arm lasts

        Jose Rijo's fastball moves like a cow at a railroad crossing. His slider, once as sharp as a scalpel, now cuts more like a butter knife.

        He stands on the pitcher's mound on sheer guts. The radar guns would tell you he has no business being out there. The scoreboard, however, says he has every right.

        “I don't feel that good of a pitcher (anymore),” Rijo said Saturday afternoon. “But I feel lucky.”

        Lucky? After five elbow operations and a six-year layoff, Jose Rijo is lucky he can lift his arm, much less use it to make baseballs break-dance. Yet here he is — a self-proclaimed “walking miracle,” a living piece of Lourdes — baffling hitters with an arsenal one notch above batting practice.

Jose Rijo is 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        “The first at-bat, (Barry) Bonds said, "He's throwing too slow for me,'” Reds catcher Corky Miller said Saturday. “Later, he told me, "Tell him to hit the speed limit.'”

        If Rijo ever exceeded 90 miles per hour Saturday afternoon, it must have been with his mouth. Yet for 4 1/3 innings, he held the San Francisco Giants hitless, and for six innings he was entirely swell. Pitching in a rain that escalated from a mist to a monsoon, this 36-year-old Lazarus extended the Reds' winning streak to seven games with an 8-4 rain-shortened victory.

        It was Rijo's first start at Cinergy Field since 1995, when the condemned ballpark was still known as Riverfront Stadium, and it might have made for a big surge at the box office if not for the weather. Still, if the prolonged downpour diminished the crowd, which was announced as 22,616, it did not dampen Rijo's spirit so much as a drop.

Temporary reprieve

        He understands, better than anyone, that he's pitching on a temporary reprieve, and he's resolved to extract every ounce of joy the experience offers.

        “I don't know how long my arm is going to last,” Rijo said. “I just want to take advantage of the opportunity as long as I can ... Hopefully, If I have to go with a broken arm, we're in first place.”

        Last year, Rijo was a novelty act, a feel-good story the Reds indulged as a reward for services rendered and dogged persistence. But he gets no allowances now for auld lang syne. He stuck with the Reds this spring because he's getting people out. The Reds are in first place, in part, because he's continued to mow them down when it matters.

        Rijo allowed only one extra-base hit in Saturday's six-inning stint — an opposite-field double by Bonds in the sixth inning — and he left the mound with an ERA of 1.89. If he has not yet solidified his spot in the starting rotation, he has begun to convince his bosses of his craftsmanship.

        “He just keeps amazing me,” said Reds manager Bob Boone. “But the way he pitches, it's not easy to hit. He throws strikes (54 out of 72 pitches), has a real effective breaking ball, changes speeds, hits spots. That's what pitching is all about.”

        Miller said Rijo's ability to change speeds effectively gives him a repertoire of eight pitches. This means a hitter can guess right and still guess wrong.

        “A lot of times,” Reds bullpen coach Tom Hume said, “the guy knows what's coming and he can't hit it. Jose doesn't have a lot of margin for error. He's got to make his pitch every single pitch. But he's got a big heart, a lot of confidence, belief, poise — all those words.”

        If he is pitching on borrowed time, he is making every minute count.

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