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He Plays Revival Role for Dodgers

September 19, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Even Jim Tracy, ever the optimist, thought Wilson Alvarez was done.

Not for the evening. Not for the season.

For good.

"I didn't think Wilson Alvarez had too many days left in the big leagues, period," the Dodger manager said, recalling how his team had hammered Alvarez for eight hits and eight runs in 4 1/3 innings in June 2002 when the left-hander pitched for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

How times have changed.

Alvarez has not only proved himself a capable replacement starter one season later, but has made a compelling case for inclusion in the Dodgers' 2004 rotation.

The 33-year-old turned in his latest virtuoso performance Thursday by limiting the Arizona Diamondbacks to four hits in seven innings during the Dodgers' 2-0 victory at Dodger Stadium.

Over his last four starts, Alvarez is 4-0 with a 0.64 earned-run average.

"I just can't explain how happy I am to help this team and to be doing good," said Alvarez, who has a 22-inning scoreless streak. "Basically for me, I was done last year. I can't explain what happened. It's the desire to win and be in the playoffs."

While Alvarez's fastball no longer reaches the 90-mph threshold, he succeeds by throwing strikes and changing speeds.

"He's still tough to locate," said Dodger infielder Robin Ventura, one of Alvarez's teammates with the Chicago White Sox in the 1990s, when Alvarez was twice a 15-game winner. "He used to throw a lot harder. Now he's 87, 88 [mph] and uses his changeup and curveball."

Is Alvarez as effective as he was with the White Sox?

"If you're not giving up any runs, you're effective," Ventura said.

Alvarez had pitched sparingly and ineffectively with the San Francisco Giants and Devil Rays since being traded by the White Sox in 1997. He sat out most of the 2000 and 2001 seasons recovering from shoulder surgery.

The Dodgers signed Alvarez to a minor league contract in January, but he considered retiring two months later when the team assigned him to triple-A Las Vegas coming out of spring training.

Driven by another opportunity to chase a World Series ring, Alvarez bit his lip and compiled a 5-1 record with a 1.34 ERA for the 51s before making his Dodger debut June 7 as a reliever. He has since filled in for starters both injured (Kevin Brown, Hideo Nomo) and ineffective (Andy Ashby), going 6-1 with a 1.99 ERA.

His piece de resistance came Sept. 12, when he pitched his first shutout in more than six years, beating the San Diego Padres.

"There is no way after what I saw last June that I could have envisioned this guy performing at the level he's performing right now," Tracy said.

Alvarez, one of the best major-league bargains at $725,000, has said would like to return in a utility role next season, pitching out of the bullpen and as a spot starter. But with the lowest ERA on a rotation that has established itself as the best in baseball, Alvarez might be thrust back into the spotlight.

Said Tracy: "I don't know if you could do it any better than he has over his last couple of starts."

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