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Rays come oh so close

YANKEES 3, RAYS 2: Tampa Bay offers up yet another resilient effort, but falters late and splits a two-game series vs. New York.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 8, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays came pretty close to another impressive victory Wednesday.

Close enough that they seemed to just miss making the play on nearly every key Yankees at-bat. Close enough that they rallied against mighty closer Mariano Rivera to get the tying and winning runs on base with one out in the ninth. Close enough that the Rays fans in the Tropicana Field record second-day crowd of 31,669 cheered their resilient efforts.

And close enough that the sting of the frustrating 3-2 defeat was just about negated by the accomplishment of splitting a second straight two-game series with the powerhouse Yankees.

"I don't know what the Yankees outlook on coming into this series was, but I'd say they definitely have to open their eyes and realize, wait a second, these guys are taking quality hacks, (playing) pretty good defense and, so far have real good pitching," catcher Brook Fordyce said.

"So I don't know if they thought it was a walkover or cake, but I think this team showed that we're there - our defense, we're swinging the bats, and we've pitched. We can play with anybody."

The Rays have played well, with the exception of the pitching in the 12-1 second-game loss in Japan.

Had they played just a little bit better Wednesday, they would have really had something to brag about.

"We still had a chance at the end," manager Lou Piniella said. "We just didn't take advantage."

Paul Abbott got the Rays off to a great start, holding the Yankees without a hit into the sixth, and the game was close the whole way, the Yankees extending their lead to 3-1 in the ninth.

With Rivera on the mound these games are usually over quickly, but the Rays had other ideas.

Aubrey Huff, who had an adventurous day playing third base, singled hard off first baseman Tony Clark's glove with one out. Switchhitter Jose Cruz, batting right-handed against the right-handed Rivera, punched a single to right. Eduardo Perez laced a double down the third-base line, cutting the gap to 3-2.

The Rays had things set up pretty well - the tying run on third, the winning run on second and, after Geoff Blum was intentionally walked, the right man at the plate in Fordyce, who was 5-for-11 against Rivera.

Fordyce took one ball, swung and missed at another, then hit the ball the one place he didn't want to hit it - right at third base, where Alex Rodriguez made an easy catch, stepped on the base and threw to first for the final out.

"It's frustrating on my part because we had a golden opportunity there to at least tie the game," Fordyce said.

The Rays would not have been in that position if they had been in a little better position a few times earlier.

In the sixth, the Yankees' first hit was a hard-hit Kenny Lofton grounder that bounced just under Abbott's glove. "I think I had a chance," Abbott said. "That's what was most frustrating."

Next was a Derek Jeter double that bounced off Huff's glove as he tried to make a diving grab.

"I thought I had it," Huff said. "As I was coming down I knew it was in the glove. And all of a sudden I hear the Yankees fans screaming and hollering and I look down the line and it was in the leftfield bullpen. I make that catch we're out of that inning probably. That was tough."

Then Rodriguez bloops a soft fly ball that falls in front of centerfielder Rocco Baldelli for a run-scoring single.

"I was shaded toward right and pretty deep," Baldelli said. "When he hits one not on the barrel you almost don't expect it because you've got to expect the ball to travel a little harder and faster."

By the time Jason Giambi slapped a clean single to right, the Yankees had turned the 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

The Rays just missed a key play again in the ninth, giving up a run that proved to be the margin of victory.

They had a chance to erase a leadoff walk with a double play, but Damian Rolls, who just came into the game at second base, was late getting the ball to Blum, who had moved to shortstop, and they got only the lead out as Bernie Williams raced to first. A single and a sac fly made the mistake count.

"Somehow, some way the ball always seemed to find the guy who just comes into the game," Blum said. "But even if we had done it perfectly as planned as we did in practice I don't think we'd get Bernie on that one."

Sometimes, coming close is good enough. Other times, it just makes it worse.

"Any time you play the Yankees and you can split with them, you feel good," Piniella said.

"The only problem is we were in a position to win. But what are you going to do?"

[Last modified April 8, 2004, 01:35:43]

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