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Rays feel the walls closing in

RANGERS 9, RAYS 8: Had Aubrey Huff's drive cleared fence, it might have been season's turning point.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published May 13, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays came up just short Wednesday night of the momentum-changing, season-turning hit they've talked about for weeks.

About a foot short.

If Aubrey Huff's ninth-inning drive to right-centerfield carries another 12 inches or so, it's a three-run homer that ties it and puts the Rays in position for a dramatic victory. Instead the ball strikes the 2-foot fence atop the 9-foot, 4-inch wall for a two-run double, the comeback stalls and the Rays end up losing, again, 9-8 to Texas.

"It's like a bad case of dominoes going on right now or something," infielder Geoff Blum said. "How does Huff's ball not go out? That might have been the thing that put us over the hump. That ball gets out and we have a tie ballgame. We knock their closer out of the game and we're still playing right now. We might still be hitting. Or we might be in here having a beer and shaking hands."

Instead, the Rays were shaking their heads.

They've lost seven straight, their most since July 2002, and 14 of their past 16. And oh, by the way, the team that New York investor Stuart Sternberg is buying 48 percent of today has the worst record in the majors at 9-23 and has matched its worst start.

Before the game manager Lou Piniella promised some subtle changes to get things turned around before the season became too lost. He wasn't too subtle after, announcing Jeremi Gonzalez had been dropped from the rotation and moved to the bullpen, likely to be replaced by Rob Bell.

Gonzalez extended his winless streak to 14 starts with another poor outing, allowing four runs on five hits in three innings, throwing 54 pitches in the process, and sneaking out through a back door of the clubhouse without talking to reporters.

"Gonzalez is going to the bullpen," Piniella said. "We'll try to get him to give us one or two good innings coming out of the bullpen from the seventh inning on. He's got experience and he usually pitches a couple good innings, so we'll try him that way."

The Rays gave Gonzalez a lead Wednesday, with Tino Martinez hitting a two-out two-run homer in the first, but he couldn't handle it. He allowed the Rangers to get one back in the second, then gave it all away in the third, allowing a leadoff double to Laynce Nix and back-to-back homers by Hank Blalock and Alfonso Soriano, whose blast hit the D-ring catwalk and was estimated at 442 feet, the longest at Tropicana Field this season.

What made Wednesday's game different than most others was the Rays came back again, Huff, showing signs of ending his season-long slump, hitting a three-run homer in the third on his way to a career-high-matching five RBIs.

But John Halama, who replaced Gonzalez, gave up a walk and a two-run homer to Kevin Mench to start the fourth, and another to Brad Fullmer in the eighth. The Rangers added two more in the ninth thanks, in part, to a blooper that Blum thought he caught and dropped but the umpire ruled he never had.

"It's just the way things are going," Blum said. "It seems like one thing leads to the next, and it's never a good thing."

Down 9-5 in the ninth, the Rays rallied with two outs. Two walks and a Rocco Baldelli single made it 9-6, and Huff's ball looked like it might be enough to tie it.

"I thought I got it," Huff said.

They all were hoping.

[Last modified May 13, 2004, 02:20:18]

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