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Interleague makes

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

TORONTO -- He wore a Padres uniform less than a year ago and spent part of the offseason working out alongside some of his old teammates at Qualcomm Stadium.

Chris Gomez definitely knows whom the Rays play the next three days.

Acquired by the Padres through a trade with the Tigers in 1996, Gomez played in 533 games before San Diego released him June 22. He signed a minor-league contract with the Rays, eventually won the starting shortstop job and batted .302 in 58 games late last season.

"It will be weird," Gomez said of the Padres' visit to Tropicana Field, the first interleague series of the season. "It's not that I've never played against a former team. But I played with these guys less than a year ago, so it will be different."

Interleague play will be an adjustment not only for Gomez.

Though there are little changes in the game when the Rays play National League teams at Tropicana Field, it's when they travel that manager Hal McRae's job gets tougher, with double switches and other intricacies of the NL game.

"There are more moves to be made," McRae said.

One aspect of interleague play McRae thinks could be improved is the implementation of the designated hitter in all interleague games at National League ballparks.

"It's an adjustment for American League clubs to have your pitcher do all these things they're not accustomed to doing," he said. "National League clubs, you can just pull somebody off the bench that needs some at-bats."

Rays pitchers have been taking batting practice the past two weeks in preparation for the 15-game stretch against NL opponents.

"They've had more practice this year," said McRae, whose club is 28-42 all-time in interleague play. "Last year we realized we needed more."

MAKING THE MOST: Though he enjoyed his most productive two-game stretch of his major-league career, Jason Smith will continue splitting time with Jared Sandberg at third base.

McRae is matching them with pitchers who best suit their style.

Smith raised his average to .214 after going 4-for-9 with a double, triple and three RBIs in the final two games against the Blue Jays.

"I felt good at the plate," Smith said. "I'm going to try and carry it over from game to game, keep working at it."

STAND STRONG: Reliever Victor Zambrano, who has the highest ERA on the pitching staff, was called into McRae's office Thursday morning for a meeting that lasted several minutes.

McRae said he told Zambrano to exude confidence on the mound even when things aren't going well.

"When you take a lot of time, you're walking around, roaming around the mound, when you're fixing the mound, when you're playing with your hat, you're telling the opposition that you don't believe in your stuff," McRae said. "Victor has as good a stuff as anybody in the big leagues. But he's got to trust it and believe in himself."

WELCOME NEWS: Pitching coach Jackie Brown had not talked to Nick Bierbrodt as of Thursday morning but was impressed with the left-hander's performance the night before.

Bierbrodt, trying to come back after a sudden loss of control, allowed two earned runs on five hits in five innings for Class A Charleston. He threw 51 of 81 pitches for strikes.

"That's really all I'm after now," Brown said. "It's going to take him three or four more games to get into the flow of pitching again. But he threw strikes and that's what is important."

MILD, MEDIUM OR HOT?: There was something special waiting for the rookies and new players in their lockers after Thursday's game: a pair of the undersized orange Spandex shorts and white tank tops traditionally worn by food servers at certain Buffalo wings restaurants.

Select players were required to wear the clothes out of the clubhouse and until they arrived back in Tampa.

ODDS AND ENDS: Greg Vaughn had some stiffness in his right shoulder and did not play. The leftfielder is expected to return to the lineup today. ... Wilson Alvarez, who threw 87 pitches Wednesday, will be pushed further the next time. His pitch count will rise to 100 or six innings. ... Centerfielder Randy Winn's home run in the fifth was his first since May 11.


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