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Injection of speed helps Rays win

RAYS 6, WHITE SOX 2: Jason Conti and Felix Escalona replace slumping starters and juice up the offense.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Hal McRae knows all about how speed thrills and how pitching and defense win pennants. He saw it when he broke into the majors with the Reds, saw it during his stellar career with the Royals.

And now, at least for a while, he wants to see how it works here.

With Jason Conti playing rightfield in place of Ben Grieve and Felix Escalona replacing struggling Brent Abernathy at second base, the Rays' run-and-gun lineup made an impressive debut.

Using the speed, the defense and some quality pitching from Paul Wilson, the Rays beat the White Sox 6-2 at Tropicana Field.

"I like speed, and I like defense," McRae said. "I grew up with a little more power but had a lot of speed and a lot of defense in Cincinnati and a lot of speed and defense in Kansas City.

"I think that's the way to go. You need some power. You need some run producers, but everyone doesn't have to produce runs. We need two-way players."

McRae wouldn't say how long he would stick with the new lineup, just that he wanted to try it for at least a few days.

With speedy rookie Carl Crawford in left, All-Star Randy Winn in center and Conti in right, the outfield takes on a new dimension. The infield might be better, too, as Escalona covers more ground than Abernathy. The question will be whether the "small" lineup can score enough runs consistently.

"We have more speed on the field, so we can play more aggressively," McRae said. "Not as much power but more speed. I like speed, and I like range. From a defensive standpoint, we're improved some. Offensively, on paper, we're not as productive, but we'll see how that plays out."

Saturday, before 11,963, it played out fine as Conti had three hits and Escalona was on base four times.

The Rays had 10 singles among their 11 hits but converted them well, stealing bases, forcing the Sox into errors, taking extra bases and beating out infield hits.

They got a run in the first when Winn singled, Escalona hit the ball to the right side and Sox first baseman Paul Konerko threw wide of second and Aubrey Huff hit a ground ball to deep shortstop.

They got the rest in the third, sending nine to the plate. Crawford, continuing his sensational start, singled, stole second and went to third on a wild throw.

He scored when Escalona reached on a fielder's choice. Steve Cox singled in a run. Jared Sandberg doubled in a run, and Conti singled in two more.

Crawford made another impressive diving catch. But Conti had the defensive play of the game, throwing out Frank Thomas at the plate in the fifth, helped by Thomas neglecting to slide. It was an even bigger out because the Sox went on to score their two runs in that inning.

"I don't know anything about if I'm going to play anymore," Conti said. "But if I do, I hope I can have close to the night I had (Saturday)." Wilson said he felt flat coming out of the bullpen. So he was determined to stay under control. It didn't show.

He held the Sox hitless into the fifth and allowed only two runs on five hits through eight innings, improving to 4-7 by winning back-to-back games for the first time in more than a year and lowering his ERA to 3.92.

"He impresses me more and more every time I catch him," John Flaherty said. "Not necessarily because of the stuff he has, but because of the competitor he is. He went out there throwing 85 mph. He didn't have a whole lot. But he found a way to will himself to win that game.

"And that's really what you're looking for out of a starting pitcher. When he doesn't have the good stuff, he finds a way to get people out. It's a testament to his heart because he really battles."

As efficient as the Rays were offensively, as tidy as they played defensively, as effective as Wilson turned out to be, the game nearly got away.

With McRae reluctant to use closer Esteban Yan, who pitched two innings Friday, Travis Phelps got the chance to finish but nearly blew it.

He walked the bases loaded with one out, then struck out Willie Harris and got Aaron Rowand on a fly to center for the final out.

"We needed to win a game, so it doesn't really matter how it ended," McRae said. "There's no ifs and buts after the ballgame when you win."

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