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Good shines through

RAYS 3, YANKEES 2: Some of Tampa Bay's most promising players key win over AL East champs, led by latest strong start by Victor Zambrano.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2002


RAYS 3, YANKEES 2: Some of Tampa Bay's most promising players key win over AL East champs, led by latest strong start by Victor Zambrano.

NEW YORK -- When general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Hal McRae meet this morning to start reviewing the season, they obviously will have plenty of negatives to discuss.

But there also have been a few good things, and they need only look back at Monday's 3-2 win over the Yankees for some examples.

Aubrey Huff, who was sent to the minors at the start of the season, has evolved into their most productive offensive player, making a run at a top five finish in the league batting race. Monday, he had a hand in each of the three runs.

Victor Zambrano, who was struggling so much in the bullpen that he nearly was sent to the minors for a second time this season, continued an impressive transformation into a starting pitcher. Monday, he went six strong innings without allowing earned run.

Ben Grieve has shown some life as a DH. Andy Sheets, another midseason callup, is making plays at second base. Damian Rolls, after a scary encounter with a fan, made a game-ending sliding catch in rightfield.

"The key to what we're trying to do is put players in situations where they can succeed and have a comfort zone," McRae said.

Though it is decidedly too little and definitely too late, the Rays have put together a decent little run, winning for the sixth time in eight games, including three of four from the Yankees, who still are playing to win homefield advantage in the playoffs.

"We're capable of playing well; the consistency is my concern," McRae said. "We need to upgrade some positions in order to play consistently. I think that's the missing piece. It was hard to put my finger on it at times, but I think we've all seen it enough, and we've all made enough excuses. We've gotten past excuses. We need to upgrade some positions in order to play consistently. ... I think that's the only way you're going to get it."

The Rays took a 2-0 lead in the first, thanks primarily to some Huff hustle and Grieve muscle. With men on first and second and one out, Huff hustled down the line after grounding to second, beating the relay throw to avert an inning-ending double play and allow Rolls to score. It was an even bigger play when Grieve followed with a hard double to right-center, sending Huff home.

The Yankees tied the score in the third, but it was Zambrano's glovework that let him down more than his pitching.

A bloop single and a walk put men on first and second with one out, and Jason Giambi hit what appeared to be a perfect double play grounder. First baseman Steve Cox fielded the ball and threw to second, but Zambrano, a former infielder who first was signed by the Yankees, dropped the return throw at first base.

A walk to Bernie Williams loaded the bases, and catcher Jorge Posada followed with a hard single to center, scoring two unearned runs.

Zambrano went six innings, allowing six hits while striking out three and walking three. In 10 starts, he has a 3-4 record and 4.35 ERA, which would be the lowest of any Rays starter. "I really want to be a starter," he said.

"We've always known he's had good stuff," McRae said. "Stuff wasn't the problem. Being relaxed and being comfortable and trusting his stuff was the problem, and I think he's beginning to trust his stuff."

The Rays went ahead in the fifth when Huff doubled in Randy Winn, who slid his left hand across the plate just ahead of Posada's tag.

Wilson Alvarez, who may have launched a new career as a reliever (though it will be somewhere else), followed Zambrano with two hitless innings. Esteban Yan, who will be a part of the discussions over what went wrong, got the final three outs, surviving a one-out walk and requiring Rolls' dramatic catch.

It was an eventful night for Rolls. An inning earlier, a barechested fan, who Rolls said appeared to be drunk, jumped out of the stands and ran toward him. Rolls, mindful of the attack last week on Royals coach Tom Gamboa, dropped his glove just in case, but the fan was apprehended without incident.

"I heard him hit the ground and I was thinking, "Just be a streaker,' " Rolls said. "Then I saw him coming my way. It looked like he might be picking something up. I was thinking, "Stand still.' Then as he got close, I'm thinking I'm going to be prepared if he does make a move, so that's when I dropped my glove. Luckily he just stuck his hand up and wanted a (high) five and kept running."

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