RAYS 7, JAYS 4: Overhauled lineup aids Joe Kennedy's best start in several weeks.
By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 16, 2002
TORONTO -- As miserable as things are right now, Rays manager Hal McRae knows they could be worse.
"The only saving grace for this group that I've had here for two years is that they've played hard," McRae said Sunday. "That is something that has always been present.
"Playing well hasn't been consistent and we haven't always executed. But as far as the way they're going about it, they've always played that hard."
The Rays ended a six-game losing streak, and avoided loss No. 101 this season, with a 7-4 win over the Blue Jays on Sunday before 16,513 at SkyDome thanks in large part to a group of players eager to impress before this forgettable season ends.
Joe Kennedy had his best outing in weeks, pitching seven innings of three-hit ball for his first win since Aug. 4, and the Nos. 7-1 hitters combined for five runs and seven of the Rays' 14 hits.
"I'm happy to win and I'm happy for Joe that he bounced back to give us a good game," McRae said. "And we swung the bats well. That's what we need. We need to score near six runs a night on most nights to win."
The Rays have lost 11 of their past 13, being outhit 139-103 and outscored 91-33. With 10 of 13 games scheduled against the first-place Yankees and wild-card long-shot Red Sox in the final two weeks, Tampa Bay remains on pace to lose 109 games.
"It's not a good situation," centerfielder Randy Winn said. "It's not fun when you're going out and losing and you're losing a high percentage of your games."
But were they a club brimming with veterans ready for October tee times, these final days might be much more turbulent than they will be with the current bunch.
Several jobs remain uncertain, and some players could be in the minors or on other teams next season.
"It's good to have a team like that," McRae said. "Everybody needs something to play for. Everybody needs a reason to go out and play hard and to prove something.
"I think the majority of the players fall into that category."
Said Winn: "We could have a totally different clubhouse (in 2003). You never know. So you take every opportunity you can trying to impress and show what you can do so you can get another opportunity next year."
And next game, as it turns out.
McRae will use Sunday's lineup, with Russ Johnson at third, Brent Abernathy at second instead of Andy Sheets, rookie Felix Escalona at short instead of Chris Gomez and Damian Rolls in the outfield, when the Rays open a three-game series against the Yankees on Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
"I was searching for something," McRae said.
Toronto took a 2-0 lead in the first after Kennedy allowed a leadoff single and home run to rookie of the year candidate Eric Hinske.
The left-hander settled down, allowing one hit in the next six innings and retiring the final 11 batters he faced.
"I was able to go out there (after the home run) and shut them down," said Kennedy, who improved to 4-0 in seven career starts against the Blue Jays. "The guys played great defensively and offensively behind me.
"We were down 2-0 at the beginning of the game and they got one run back and then a couple more runs back and a couple more runs. It just kept going."
It took a few innings before the Rays rediscovered their secret to hitting Blue Jays starter Esteban Loaiza, who is 1-2 with a 15.95 ERA against the Rays this season.
They tied the score on an run-scoring single by Escalona in the fifth and took a 3-2 lead when Winn singled home Johnson later that inning. The Rays then scored four in the sixth.
Wilson Alvarez and Esteban Yan pitched the final two innings. Yan got his 18th save.
"You're going to get beat and that's just part of the game sometimes," said Johnson, who scored the tying and go-ahead runs.
"Especially with a young club, winning at this level is nothing that just happens. It takes time sometimes, especially when you've got nothing but young guys. It's a learned skill. You can win even though you're young, but you've got to learn how to overcome adversity and overcome the pressure. That's the hardest thing."