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Rays waste Baldelli lovefest

RED SOX 6, RAYS 5: Local boy goes 3-for-4 in first Fenway game but Boston wins in ninth.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2003

BOSTON -- Rocco Baldelli's homecoming was spoiled by a reality show Tuesday night.

Despite the best efforts of Rhode Island's favorite son, the Devil Rays let another comeback go to waste and another game slip away, losing to the Red Sox 6-5.

Baldelli did his part, thrilling the 200 or so friends and relatives by going 3-for-4, extending his hitting streak to 12 games while improving his average to .426 and keying the Rays' eighth-inning rally to wipe out the 5-1 deficit struggling Nick Bierbrodt left them with.

But just as they did Saturday in New York, the Rays gave it away in the ninth.

"You know, it'd be nice to put together a string of these wins instead of just falling a little short," manager Lou Piniella said. "That's the objective. And once we get this straightened out a little bit I think we will."

Their downfall started when Al Levine walked No. 2 hitter Bill Mueller to start the ninth. "A leadoff walk in the ninth doesn't help, especially with (Nomar) Garciaparra and (Manny) Ramirez coming up behind them," Piniella said.

Garciaparra, the Sox star shortstop, singled hard to left, and Ramirez advanced Mueller to third with a fly to deep right-center.

Piniella brought in lefty Bobby Seay, who twice foiled Hideki Matsui over the weekend, and wanted him to go hard at Todd Walker, hoping to get a ground ball or a popup. But the rookie fell behind and walked Walker to load the bases.

"That's what happens with a little inexperience," Piniella said. "If we got Walker out we have the choice of walking the next hitter and pitching to (Jeremy) Giambi with our left-hander."

Instead, the Rays brought in Travis Harper to face Shea Hillenbrand, hoping he could get an out or two. "You're asking for a lot to get out of the inning with a double play," Piniella said.

Harper got Hillenbrand to hit it on the ground, but it bounced through the infield, also similar to Saturday when Matsui beat them almost the same way. "We got the ground ball," Piniella said. "It just found a seam up the middle."

"I wouldn't change the execution, or the game plan or what I was trying to do out there," Harper said. "It just didn't work out."

It was the fifth time in 13 games the game was decided on the final pitch and the seventh decided in the final inning, but it still was a loss, enough to dampen what otherwise was a virtual celebration of Baldelli's arrival.

More than 100 students from his high school, Warwick's Bishop Hendricken, bused in for the game, and they made their presence known with signs and cheers and chants of "ROC-CO, ROC-CO," an unusual experience in a ballpark usually filled with diehard fans of the Olde Towne Team.

Five shirtless boys lined the front row of the stands just beyond Baldelli in centerfield, each with a letter on his chest in tribute, R O C C O. Several held a large green banner, "Hendricken Loves Rocco." Others held smaller signs, including one that read, "And God Said: Upon This Rocco, I Will Build My Team."

Baldelli said he didn't pay too much attention -- "I didn't see too much of the craziness," he said -- but appreciated the extensive support. "I heard them a couple times," he said. "Normally I can't really hear anything, especially coming to an away park; most of the stuff you hear is not really going to be nice stuff so you don't really open your ears up too much.

"It's nice to have people that care about you and to know that they are there."

Baldelli didn't know exactly how many friends and relatives were in the stands. He smartly spread the word, even during the winter when the idea of him being here in April seemed like a longshot, that he would welcome them all but would be able to get tickets only for his immediate family.

His afternoon was spent doing monotonous interviews as much of New England seems to have embraced him and wanted him to tell his story. That didn't bother him; neither did the pressure of playing before the home crowd or being moved from the second spot in the lineup to No. 3.

"Coming to Fenway I don't know if there was any way I wouldn't enjoy myself," he said. "Obviously it's a lot less when you don't win, but being able to come home, it was something I haven't been able to do since I've been playing pro ball. ... I'm pretty happy I was able to do it."

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