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If only they'd end in 8

RED SOX 7, RAYS 5: It's Victor Zambrano's turn as a grand slam in ninth lifts Boston.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002

[AP photo]
Rays pitcher Victor Zambrano reacts after giving up a grand slam in the ninth inning.
ST. PETERSBURG -- What else, you may have wondered, could go wrong for the Rays?

Well, how about this one:

Saturday, they carried another lead into the ninth. Then their bullpen struggled once more. And they lost again when Boston pinch-hitter Shea Hillenbrand's fly ball to left struck a catwalk for a grand slam, giving the Red Sox a 7-5 victory.

It was the third straight game the Rays lost after being one out from victory.

"Just amazing," Steve Cox said. "I've never been in anything like it, and I don't think anyone in here has seen anything like this. You're just on the bench shaking your head like, "What's going on here? Something's not right. Something's weird.' "

The crushing loss, before a spirited crowd of 17,972, second-largest of the season, extended their losing streak to nine games, third-longest in team history, and dropped them into last place for the first time this season.

The frustration apparently went deep. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli was visibly upset after the game, and manager Hal McRae and pitching coach Jackie Brown, still in uniform, were seen leaving the joint suites of Naimoli and general manager Chuck LaMar about an hour after the game ended.

The bullpen clearly is a problem. Victor Zambrano became the third reliever to fail the Rays in the three days, following Esteban Yan on Thursday and Jesus Colome on Friday.

The Rays led 3-2 when Zambrano came on to work the eighth and expanded the lead to 5-2 going to the ninth. But Zambrano, who was up with his pitches and behind to 10 of 14 batters, couldn't get the final outs.

Pinch-hitter Brian Daubach started the Red Sox rally with a one-out double. Zambrano walked pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga to bring the tying run to the plate, then got the second out when Johnny Damon flied to left.

Zambrano got ahead of Nomar Garciaparra 0-and-2 but didn't get a fastball inside enough and gave up a double to left, making it 5-3 and putting the tying run on second.

"I can't say anything," Zambrano said. "I was trying to strike him out and he hit it real good."

McRae then decided to put the go-ahead run on first by intentionally walking Manny Ramirez, a move he said was automatic. "All night, all day," McRae said.

Struggling Tony Clark was next, but Boston manager Grady Little made what he said was a tough decision and what McRae said was a surprising one by sending Hillenbrand to the plate.

"That was my play," McRae said. "My play was to have Victor face Clark and not let Ramirez beat us."

Instead, Hillenbrand beat them. Zambrano fell behind 3-and-0, got one strike, then left a fastball over the plate that Hillenbrand crushed. "What can I say," Zambrano said.

"I was thinking probably the same thing everyone else thought: This can't be happening," second baseman Brent Abernathy said. "Things happen like that; it's just happening a lot to us right now. It can't go forever where teams continue to get two and three and four runs in the ninth inning. It's just not the way the game works. It's not going to happen all the time."

For a moment, it appeared leftfielder Jason Tyner would catch the ball had it not struck the C-ring catwalk 120 feet above, but Tyner said that was not the case.

"It was definitely going out," he said.

Until the ninth, the Rays seemed headed to an impressive victory over the best team in baseball, and McRae chose to stress the positive in a brief postgame team meeting.

Joe Kennedy pitched a strong seven innings. Slumping Greg Vaughn delivered a two-run double in the fourth. Birthday boy Ben Grieve provided two runs with a bases-loaded single in the eighth.

They even got six hits (and three runs) off Derek Lowe, who pitched a no-hitter against them April 27 in Boston.

McRae wanted to make sure the quality of their effort was not lost in the frustrating ending.

"The last four games we've had the lead," he said. "The last three losses have come with an out to go. So we've been right there to win it. And I'll take my chances if we can continue to do the things that we've done. I stressed to the players that we're close. This is exactly where we want to be and this is exactly the way we want to play, but we want to finish the game and close the opposition down."

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