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Flattened in the ninth

TWINS 6, RAYS 2: Esteban Yan gives up five in the ninth with Tampa Bay on the verge of a three-game sweep.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Rays catcher Toby Hall has the ball but no one to tag as A.J. Pierzynski scores on Doug Mientkiewicz's two-run double during the Twins' five-run ninth-inning rally.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- It is the price of being a major-league closer.

Pressure situations are magnified.

And failure is met with bright lights, video cameras and a crowd of reporters gathered around your locker in search of an explanation.

"One day you can have a good day," Esteban Yan said. "The next you can have a bad day."

Thursday would fall into the latter category. Brought in to pitch the final three outs of what looked like a three-game sweep by the Rays, Yan allowed five runs in the ninth inning as the Twins won 6-2 before 10,623 at Tropicana Field.

"You can hold a team down for long periods of time," second baseman Brent Abernathy said. "But at some point they're going to bust out. Especially good teams.

"The Twins busted out at the right time."

The loss prevented Tampa Bay from securing its second sweep against Minnesota in eight months, a 10th straight home victory against the Twins, a .500 record and a five-game winning streak heading into a weekend series against the first-place Red Sox.

"It stings a little bit, obviously," Abernathy said.

But it doesn't diminish the club's improved play of late. After losing eight of 10 following a season-opening sweep of the Tigers, the Rays have won four of seven and are two games under .500 after 20 games.

"We're right where we want to be," manager Hal McRae said. "We're in every game with a chance to win. So we're competing each night. That's progress.

"We've made a lot of progress in that respect. We're not getting blown away. The game was right there and we let it slip away."

The Rays got eight strong innings from starter Tanyon Sturtze and enough clutch hitting from the bottom of the order to hold a one-run lead heading into the ninth.

"I feel good when our closer comes into the ballgame," McRae said. "Every manager does. You're a little on edge because you don't want the game to slip away.

"But that's the position you like to go into the ninth inning, with a lead, with your closer on the mound. That's what we play for ... to put that guy out there."

That Yan wasn't throwing well was apparent from the first batter he faced, and walked.

Facing pitches high and often down the middle, the Twins drew two walks and hit two singles, a double and a home run. Yan allowed six of the eight batters he faced to reach base.

"I didn't throw strikes," Yan said. "And when you don't throw strikes, that's what happens."

Yan had converted his past 10 save opportunities entering Thursday.

"As long as he's the closer," McRae said, "he'll get the ball."

The Rays led 2-1 in the seventh after No. 9 hitter Russ Johnson muscled a broken-bat single into shallow leftfield off Minnesota starter Kyle Lohse, scoring shortstop Chris Gomez from second.

The duo generated Tampa Bay's first run in much the same manner.

Batting seventh, Gomez doubled down the leftfield line and scored on a Johnson single to left-center in the second inning for a 1-0 lead.

"When they had that broken bat single for a run, we said, "Here we go again,' " said Doug Mientkiewicz, who delivered the two-run double off Yan in the ninth that gave Minnesota a 4-2 lead.

It wasn't much offense, but it seemed to be all Sturtze needed.

Winless in his first four starts, the veteran right-hander was pulled after throwing 114 pitches in eight innings.

He allowed one run on eight hits, striking out five and walking one.

"I had all my pitches working and I just kept them off-balance," Sturtze said. "I had my offspeed working, my fastball on both sides of the plate. I just gave them a bunch of different looks everytime they came up."

Because Sturtze was six pitches from his limit after the eighth, Yan was called from the bullpen.

"If you were going to script it, that's the way you would do it," McRae said. "Your starter takes you deep, gives you a lead going into the ninth. So you give the ball to your closer and you win the ballgame.

"It just didn't work that way today."

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