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Rays have usual lapses, but hang on in the ninth

RAYS 8, WHITE SOX 2: Tanyon Sturtze, close to being sent to the bullpen, pitches a complete game.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2002

CHICAGO -- It wasn't easy. Of course it wasn't. It was the Rays and it was the ninth inning.

What should have been a relaxing victory suddenly got interesting Friday night after a couple of typical foul-ups by the team that has made losing in the ninth its own masochistic art form. But, for a change, things turned out all right with an 8-2 win over the White Sox.

This time, it didn't matter that Tanyon Sturtze, who had pitched brilliantly, gave up a pair of home runs to open the ninth. Or that Ben Grieve somehow missed a routine fly ball. Or that the Sox came within 20 feet of cutting the lead to 8-5 on Carlos Lee's deep fly ball that ended up being the final out.

"What gave me the jitters was when Ben dropped the ball in right," manager Hal McRae said. "I was pretty calm up until that point. But, deja vu, how many ways can you do this thing? So I was concerned after that."

The late-inning collapses -- 20 losses in games decided from the ninth on, nine after they led with one or two outs in the ninth -- have been so painful, McRae said he has conditioned himself to not relax under any circumstances. "I can live with a nervous stomach and a win, regardless of what the score is," he said. "That's better than losing. I've been conditioned to know that too.'

The Rays snapped a cruel three-game losing streak their way on Comiskey Park's Elvis Tribute Night, replete with Elvis-themed singers, dancers and skydivers.

Toby Hall hit a two-run homer and singled in a run for a career-high matching three RBIs, and Grieve drove in three more with a home run and two singles. Centerfielder Randy Winn made a running, twisting catch of a Magglio Ordonez drive in the eighth that could have scored two runs.

Hall, on a 16-for-32 tear (including four three-hit games in his last eight) that has his average up to .248, said the key is keeping things simple.

"I don't think anymore," the catcher said. "I'm not putting any pressure on myself."

Before the game, McRae said he thought Sturtze would be better off as a reliever. Sturtze went out and made a pretty good case to stay in the rotation, taking a shutout into the ninth for the first complete-game victory of his career (and the Rays' major-league-high 11th) and the first back-to-back wins of his disappointing season.

"It's nice," Sturtze said. "It's just too bad it's taken this long to happen. I feel pretty comfortable up there on the mound right now."

The game plan was to throw his fastball low and away, and Sturtze did it well, taking advantage of the steep Comiskey Park mound to get 14 outs on fly balls or popups.

"He had everything," Hall said. "He had all four fingers working. He didn't let down and he attacked them. It was fun."

McRae's reasoning is that Sturtze relies primarily on his fastball and those type of pitchers often succeed more as short relievers. "I think he's better suited for the bullpen," McRae said.

The Rays asked him in May about going back to the bullpen, but he declined. They couldn't consider it much lately because they don't have any other starters who can provide as many innings (1812/3).

It is not clear what role Sturtze will have with the Rays next season, or even if he'll be back. Despite his 3-13 record, his salary could increase fivefold, from $295,000 to about $1.5-million, because he will be eligible for arbitration for the first time.

"If we fill some holes we can rectify the problem, and hopefully we'll do that over the winter," McRae said. "Then we can put people where they're better suited as opposed to where they're needed."

It was an emotional week for Sturtze, who spent most of it in Massachusetts with his family after the death of an aunt. "Maybe it was good to get away, and I knew she was up there watching," he said.

The key Friday was getting out of the first-inning jam he created by allowing a leadoff single to Aaron Rowand then carelessly throwing the ball past first after fielding a bunt. But with men on second and third, he ripped through Chicago's best hitters, striking out Lee, popping up Ordonez and retiring Paul Konerko on a fly out.

"It was huge," Sturtze said. "It was really big. I think it set the whole tone for me for the whole night."

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