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For once, it's Rays winning close one

RAYS 4, MARINERS 3 (10): Ben Grieve gets the decisive hit, easing a lot of bad feelings for Tampa Bay.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
The Rays' Tanyon Sturtze, reacting to a John Olerud home run, had a quality start but no decision.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays know just about everything there is to know about losing close games. Saturday night, they felt pretty good about winning one, and snapping an eight-game losing streak in the process.

All it took to beat Seattle 4-3 was another solid nine-inning outing by Tanyon Sturtze, some strong defense by catcher Toby Hall, a key error by the Mariners to set up the winning rally and a bases-loaded single by Ben Grieve that ended it in the 10th.

"We got the win tonight and that's a big lift for us," Sturtze said. "It's been tough for us. The past eight games we've been in some really close ballgames and haven't been able to get the win. Tonight, it's good to finally put one in that W column instead of coming in and not hearing any music and going home thinking about losing."

Six of the eight losses were decided in the eighth inning or later, five straight on their opponent's final at-bat. The Rays have had a major-league high 22 games decided from the ninth inning on (losing 13), and an AL-high 48 with a final margin of one or two runs (losing 30).

"What we accomplished tonight was that we found a way to win the baseball game," manager Hal McRae said. "We've been in a lot of close games, a lot of one-run games, two-run games, but we came out on the short end.

"Tonight, we found a way to win and that's what we're going to have to do. If we're going to play close games and good games and get good pitching, we have to find a way to win, and tonight we did. So hopefully this is a start."

The Rays hadn't won since June 30, the eight-game losing streak matching the fourth-longest in their short history. It didn't look good Saturday when Sturtze gave up a leadoff homer to Ichiro Suzuki and another to No. 3 hitter John Olerud before most of the Tropicana Field crowd of 15,840 had settled in.

But the Rays came right back and tied the score, Randy Winn matching Ichiro with his leadoff homer (striking a speaker attached to the C-ring catwalk) and Aubrey Huff driving in Brent Abernathy.

Ichiro wasn't done, hitting another homer to lead off the third, his first multihomer game since coming to the major leagues from Japan.

"The (first pitch) was supposed to be a ball inside and it happened to come back over the plate," Sturtze said. "The guy's unbelievable. That's all I can say. That ball was up at his neck somewhere. But that's what happens when he's that good. There's not much you can do. ... I tried to throw a changeup to him (in the third) and I think he hit that one farther than he hit the fastball. After that I said to myself I don't know if I have anything to get this guy out with."

The Rays tied the score in the seventh, when Jason Conti reached on a bunt single and came around to score on a Jared Sandberg single. But they left two men on with a chance to take the lead, and it looked like it might be another night of missed opportunity.

"The game got tied in the seventh and I'm thinking, "Here we go again, another one-run ballgame in the making,' " Rays first baseman Steve Cox said. "But we came out on top this time, so that was nice."

They hung in with good pitching from Sturtze (1-9 but with a respectable 4.42 ERA) and defense: Hall threw out three potential base-stealers at second and Conti threw out Olerud at the plate as Seattle threatened to break the game open in the third.

They had a chance to win in the ninth when pinch-hitter Dave McCarty reached on a bloop single off Bret Boone's glove, but he got no farther than second.

It was another good outing for Sturtze -- "He's made a mojo turn, that's easy to see," McRae said -- but another good outing without a win. It was the fourth time in seven starts Sturtze pitched nine innings without a decision or complete game.

When they got another break to open the 10th, Seattle shortstop Carlos Guillen booting Cox's hard grounder, they took advantage. Huff singled hard to left-center, with Cox going to third. Mariners manager Lou Piniella decided to walk Hall to set up the force play and have left-hander John Halama pitch to Grieve, who was hitless in his past seven at-bats. Grieve got ahead 2-and-0 and slapped a single to right.

"We've been losing a lot of games lately, so it's just good to get a win," Grieve said. "It didn't matter if it was a close one or not."

Outta leftfield

Scoring the winning run from third on a single to rightfield is supposed to be a 90-foot joyride.

But when you're the not-mercurial Steve Cox and rocket-armed Ichiro Suzuki is coming up gunning, it's not a complete laughfest. Sure, Cox made it home in plenty of time, but Ichiro's peg home made things interesting.

"He caught me a little off guard," Cox smiled. "Unless I'm crawling, there shouldn't be a play right there. Shouldn't be."

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