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Rays are the show in victory

RAYS 7, YANKEES 4: Tampa Bay is impressive in front of the season's second-largest crowd.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The roar that greeted Robin Ventura's home run and the melodic chants of "Let's go, Yankees" had, finally, died down. By the time the Rays got Derek Jeter out to complete one of their more impressive performances of the season, they may have won more than a game.

From the sound of the Trop, rocking with 35,021 on a Saturday night, they also won over some sorely needed fans, showing them that underneath all the negative news, rumored financial concerns and late-inning collapses is a team capable of playing good baseball, beating the Yankees 7-4.

"We haven't really given them a whole lot to cheer about here," Rays second baseman Brent Abernathy said. "So it's key for us to play good, solid baseball games when we do have people here. That's the only way we're going to start winning them over, so to speak, and get them coming back out."

The show the Rays put on, before the largest crowd -- by nearly 13,000 -- since opening night, was entertaining.

The teams traded runs early as Tampa Bay's Travis Harper and New York's Jeff Weaver took turns getting in and out of trouble. The Rays extended their lead to 5-2 with a sixth-inning rally that featured a triple (yes, a triple) by catcher Toby Hall and a mammoth home run by third baseman Jared Sandberg.

When the Yankees closed to 5-4 in the seventh, despite a spectacular diving catch by rookie leftfielder Carl Crawford, the Rays answered with Jesus Colome striking out Ventura at the game's most crucial point, and Esteban Yan retiring the last six in order after Tampa Bay tacked on a couple of insurance runs.

"It's fun," Rays manager Hal McRae said. "You hope that the fans enjoyed themselves and will return to the Trop to watch a baseball game."

The team can try different marketing tactics and price reductions, but there is really only one way to make Saturday's exciting scene more than a special event.

"It's really done on the field," McRae said. "It's done by the players. It can't be done by anyone else. The better they are, the more we win; the better we play, the easier it is to sell the product. The players are it."

Harper, freed from the bullpen to make his first start since May 25, was certainly a big part of the story, holding the Yankees to four runs on six hits over 62/3 innings, and apparently knocking slugger Jason Giambi out of the lineup for at least today by hitting him on the right elbow with a pitch.

"I can't say enough about the way Harper pitched against a good club in a spot start," McRae said.

Harper made one mistake, a two-run homer in the fourth to Ventura, his second in two nights after a 26-game drought.

The Rays tied it in the fifth with only one ball leaving the infield, then struck for three in the sixth to open the 5-2 lead. Sandberg had the big shot, a two-run homer that seemed to be still rising when it struck the C-ring catwalk 110 feet above leftfield. It was Sandberg's 10th homer of the season, and came in his 177th at-bat.

More unusual was the triple by the Hall, his first in the majors and fourth in nearly 2,300 professional at-bats. The ball tucked just inside the third-base line, then scooted past leftfielder John Vander Wal. "It takes good placement for me to get a triple," said Hall, who has all the standard speed of a catcher.

The Yankees, as they usually do in this lopsided series, came battling back, drawing within 5-4 in the seventh.

A pair of singles and an infield out put runners on second and third. Crawford made a diving catch of Jeter's sinking liner, but Vander Wal tagged up and dashed home, drawing an impassioned protest, then an apology from McRae, who hadn't seen him go back to the base.

After Harper hit Giambi, Bernie Williams greeted Colome, as he has done to so many others, with a big hit, a broken-bat blooper that scored Nick Johnson and cut the deficit to 5-4. But Colome struck out Ventura and McRae summoned Yan for a rare two-inning appearance, which he aced.

"I needed him for two," McRae said. "It was time for two. I wanted to go with my best."

On this night, it was good enough. Strong starting pitching. Clutch hitting. Dazzling defense. Quality relief work.

And a big ovation from the crowd, which by then seemed to be largely, and loudly, behind the Rays.

"I think," Hall said, "that's because we showed them how we can play."

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