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Rays detect no signs of a Yankees decline

YANKEES 6-6, RAYS 5-3: Sweep goes to team that cashes in on its chances.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003

NEW YORK - The tabloids have been running with the story all season about how the Yankees roster is flawed and that New York is a less dominant and more vulnerable team.

The Devil Rays should have such problems.

The supposedly struggling Yankees swept a day-night doubleheader from the Rays on Saturday, winning 6-5 and 6-3.

By the end of the long, wet, dreary day, the Yankees had won a season-high-matching eight straight, improved their major-league-best record to 92-56 and reduced their magic number for clinching a sixth straight division title to 10.

The Rays lost their fifth straight, dropped to 58-89 and made more pressing the question of whether they will win five more games to avoid a third straight 100-loss season.

"It was a long day," leftfielder Carl Crawford said in the somber clubhouse. "You can tell by the guys' body language in here."

About the only positives for the Rays were two numerical milestones: Aubrey Huff got his 100th RBI and Crawford stole his 50th base.

Otherwise, 18 innings and 13 hours at the ballpark only illustrated the differences between the teams, the Yankees continually getting the big hits and making the big plays when they had to and the Rays, who led 2-0 in both games, failing to do so.

"We played hard; what are you going to do?" Huff said. "Those guys over there are professional hitters and professional pitchers and we're a team that's battling their payroll; they're $100-and-whatever-million and we're $8- to 10-million. I think we showed a lot of heart out there battling today."

"They're the Yankees," Crawford said. "We jump out and they just come roaring back."

Manager Lou Piniella did not take it as well, visibly frustrated and short with his answers.

Asked if the Yankees' ability to come back in the first game was an indication of why they are good, he said: "I think what you see is why we are what we are. That's what you can see more than that."

The first loss was a matter of opportunity.

The Rays had a number of chances to put away woeful Jeff Weaver and couldn't do it. And when they gave the Yankees the chance to get back in it, they did.

Still the score was tied going to the bottom of the eighth when Joe Kennedy left a pitch over the plate and leadoff man Ruben Sierra hit it over the centerfield fence for the decisive run.

The game should never have come down to that.

The Rays had three consecutive hits, a stolen base, a throwing error and a sac fly in the first and got only two runs. They had two hits in the second and didn't get any. They had a single and a double to start the third and got only one. They had two hits to start the fifth and didn't get any. They had two hits in the sixth and got only one. And they had the bases loaded with one out in the seventh and didn't get any.

"We wasted a lot of opportunities," Piniella said.

The Yankees erased the 2-0 Tampa Bay lead with a three-run second sparked by Bernie Williams, who celebrated his 35th birthday with two home runs. The Rays tied it three times, and each time the Yankees went back ahead within an inning.

"They won 26 world championships for a reason," said Rob Bell, who pitched an inconsistent 51/3 innings. "You make a mistake, they make you pay. ... "They're execution-oriented, and they're very good at what they do."

The hit that created the most conversation, and controversy, was the one in the seventh between Kennedy and Hideki Matsui, the Japanese star who is Rocco Baldelli's main competition for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

The Rays had hit Derek Jeter and Williams with pitches to load the bases, when Matsui hit a slow roller up the first-base line. As Kennedy tried to field the ball he stepped in front of Matsui and took the brunt of the force as both went down hard, Matsui on top of the ball. With runners moving and no call from the umpire, Kennedy pushed Matsui aside to retrieve the ball and make the tag.

"I was just trying to make a play," Kennedy said. "You see collisions all the time. It is unusual to see one down the first-base line but the ball took me right into him."

Matsui left the game and then the building, going to a hospital for precautionary X-rays on his bruised left knee, sending a pack of Japanese journalists to seek out Kennedy. X-rays were negative and Matsui started the night game.

The Rays again scored first in that one, but the Yankees answered right back and went ahead to stay on Jason Giambi's third-inning homer off Carlos Reyes.

"We'd get on the board and they'd strike right back. We wouldn't even have an inning to have the momentum," first baseman/DH Travis Lee said. "I guess that's why they're the Yankees."

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