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Deja vu: Rays 1 out away, so far away

ROYALS 7, RAYS 3 (12): For second night Esteban Yan gives up HR in ninth. This time he loses closer job.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- As the Rays talk about filling holes for next season, it is becoming painfully more obvious they have to do something about the huge one at the end of the bullpen.

Closer Esteban Yan failed them again in Saturday's 7-3 loss to the Royals, giving up a home run when they were one out from victory for the second straight night.

The homer Yan allowed to Brent Mayne tied the score at 3, then Jesus Colome lost it by giving up a three-run homer to Mike Sweeney in the 12th.

It was enough to leave everyone in the organization from managing general partner Vince Naimoli on down shaking their heads, and enough for Hal McRae to strip Yan of his closer duties for the second time this season. The manager said he'll try Yan in a setup role, with Wilson Alvarez, Travis Harper and Colome sharing closing duties based on availability.

"I have to try something different," McRae said. "The bullpen has been a problem all season and it's something we have to try and solve somehow, though I don't really know how.

"I'm going to have to try to patch the back end somehow. It doesn't appear that we can go exclusively with the one guy."

It was the second straight game and sixth this season the Rays lost when they were within one out of victory, and the 18th they've lost that was decided in the ninth inning or later.

"They (stink) really," Randy Winn said. "(Friday) night and tonight we were so close. One pitch. One out. That's how the game goes. It can get a little frustrating at times, but you learn from it."

With the loss dropping their record to 40-82, the Rays continue to move toward a dizzying number of losses (they are on pace for 109) and elite company. Since 1970, there have been only three teams with fewer wins at this point in the season: the 1985 Pirates (39-83), 1979 A's (37-85) and the 1979 Blue Jays (39-83).

The Rays also became the first team since the 1999 Cubs to go winless through 14 consecutive series, last winning one June 28-30 against Florida.

And all this from a team that was talking in spring training about finishing with a .500 record.

Three times Saturday, the Rays took a one-run lead, scoring on a single by impressive rookie Carl Crawford, and a home run and a sacrifice fly by red-hot Aubrey Huff. But, despite a decent start by Jorge Sosa, the Royals caught up each time, taking advantage of careless defense in the early innings and Yan's bad pitch in the ninth.

Yan got two quick outs, then left a 2-and-0 fastball over the plate that Mayne, who has three homers this season and 31 in his 12-year career, lofted just over the rightfield fence.

The teams exchanged wasted opportunities until the 12th, when Colome walked the leadoff man, then gave up a bunt single, a fielder's choice grounder and three-run blast to Sweeney.

"We let another one get away," McRae said. "It's tough, but the guys have handled the situation extremely well."

Yan's struggles are not new. He has blown seven of 22 save opportunities this season, including three straight and four of his last five. His .680 save percentage is the lowest in the majors, and he shares the American League lead for blown saves. In his Rays career, he has blown 25 of 63 save opportunities.

Leaving the clubhouse quickly Saturday, he said he still could do the job. "I feel comfortable," Yan said. "Sometimes you're going to have bad days."

McRae said the problems do not appear to be physical.

"He has a tendency to rush," McRae said. "We can't really pinpoint why he rushes, but the closer he gets to the end the more he has a tendency to rush. He gets anxious for some reason.

"He's done that for two years. You expected him to get better in that respect. We're not talking about ability, we're talking about relaxing, focusing on just doing your job and getting batters out. We really can't put our finger on why he does what he does, but he does it. We know physically he's rushing. The mental aspect we don't know and we'll probably never know."

The Rays would seem to be at the point where they have to try someone else next season, particularly as Yan's salary continues to escalate, with an arbitration-driven raise from $1.5-million to about $3-million likely despite his 5-7 record and 4.39 ERA.

They could trade him to a team that would use him as a setup man, but given a lack of interest at the July 31 deadline that seems unlikely. Rather than pay him that much money, the Rays might let him go by not tendering him a contract.

Even then, that would only solve part of the problem. The Rays don't seem to have anyone on the staff who can do the job; the other relievers have blown nine saves in 15 opportunities. It certainly doesn't appear that it could be Colome, who was once considered the logical successor but has struggled more than Yan, blowing five saves to go along with a 2-7 record and 8.03 ERA.

Their best hope may be to look for a veteran free agent at a reduced price.

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