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Despite loss, team gains in rotation

By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 26, 2004

CHICAGO - The Devil Rays lost a tough game Sunday. But they may have gotten back a starting pitcher.

Jeremi Gonzalez, who seemed destined for the bullpen or the (Triple-A Durham) Bulls after three horrid starts, returned to form with a solid seven-inning outing.

He held the Sox to five hits and one earned run (though his error led to an unearned run) and, more important, gave the Rays reason to think he can again be a reliable member of their unstable rotation. "He was awesome," catcher Toby Hall said. "He was back to normal."

Gonzalez has been working extensively with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, and the improvements were marked. He smoothed out some flaws in his mechanics and was again able to make effective use of his curveball by having Hall set up a little farther outside.

"I've been working with the pitching coach and really I just want to give all the credit to him," Gonzalez said. "We have a ways to go, and we have to keep working."

With Paul Abbott and Victor Zambrano pitching well, and with Doug Waechter making a strong debut, the Rays hope Gonzalez, their most consistent starter last season, can at least be a solid fourth member of the rotation.

"I feel better, but I have to keep working," said Gonzalez, who hasn't won since Aug. 19. "Hopefully every day I get better and better."

DEE-FENSE, DEE-FENSE: The Rays made a concerted effort to improve their defense, and they flashed leather all over the field.

Rightfielder Jose Cruz threw speedy Willie Harris out at second and made a pair of dazzling catches, making a spectacular running and diving grab to rob Frank Thomas, then running down a Carlos Lee drive in right-center while avoiding Rocco Baldelli in the process.

Baldelli made an impressive running catch of his own before crashing into the left-centerfield wall, shortstop Julio Lugo and third baseman Damian Rolls made highlight quality plays, and Hall and first baseman Eduardo Perez teamed for a key pickoff in the ninth, Hall firing behind Lee to first and Perez blocking the base with his leg so Lee couldn't get back.

"It was a real nice defensive game," manager Lou Piniella said. "we made plays all over the place."

DEEP HOLE: Cruz went 0-for-3 with a walk, extending the worst slump of his career to 0-for-25. He hasn't gotten a hit since April 16 and doesn't know what to do about it. "Just keep swinging," Cruz said. "I don't know how long (the streak is), I don't even want to talk about it. Just keep swinging is all I can do really. Battle every day. It's bound to happen sometime."

ALL RIGHT: Rey Sanchez had a sore left thigh and neck as a result of Saturday's rightfield collision with Damian Rolls and didn't play Sunday. Geoff Blum started at second, the first time he'd been in the lineup against a left-handed starter since the end of 2002.

Even though Blum is a switch-hitter, he has been used almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter the last few seasons. His last start against a lefty before Sunday was Sept. 28, 2002, against San Francisco Kirk Reuter. He was 5-for-37 against left-handers last season and, after going 0-for-3 Sunday, is 1-for-6 this season.

HALT, THIEF: Carl Crawford stole his AL-leading 11th base in the first. But Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle, who had only one base stolen off him last season, caught Crawford leaning in the seventh and picked him off.

MISCELLANY: Aubrey Huff is bothered by swollen glands and has lost weight, but an exam by a second doctor didn't provide any new information, and he will continue to take antibiotics. ... Through Saturday, B.J. Upton was second in the Southern League with a .388 average, including a 12-game hitting streak. ... Durham outfielder Midre Cummings leads the International League at .439.

[Last modified April 26, 2004, 01:10:13]

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