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Better every day

RAYS 6, TWINS 1: Julio Lugo's bat, Victor Zambrano's revival help Tampa Bay win fifth straight.

MARC TOPKIN
Published May 26, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Okay, so it's not quite like going on an unexpected magic ride to the Stanley Cup final. But the Devil Rays slowly - and relatively quietly - are going places, too.

Tuesday's 6-1 victory over Minnesota was their fifth straight, marking their longest winning streak since September 2000 and one shy of the team record. It was the first time they'd beaten the Twins in 12 tries, dating to April 24, 2002. And it moved them within two games of catching Toronto and escaping last place in the AL East.

"I think we feel we can compete with anybody right now, at least," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "A couple days back, I don't think we were thinking like that."

They won Tuesday like they have been for a week: getting good starting pitching, with Victor Zambrano rediscovering the strike zone; clutch hitting, with Lugo hitting a three-run tiebreaking homer in the sixth; good defense, with Carl Crawford making a sliding catch to quash a Twins rally in the seventh; and excellent relief work, with Lance Carter retiring the last six.

"I think everyone knew we were better than we were playing," Carter said. "We've just got to keep working."

As things tend to go for the Rays, they are having their best streak of the season when most area sports fans are wrapped up in the Lightning's captivating run toward an NHL championship. Tuesday's paid crowd of 8,571 was the eighth smallest in team history, and probably only about half that many were in the Tropicana Field stands.

Zambrano snapped a seven-game winless streak by picking up his first victory since April 11, but he said he was happier about the team's success. But if the Rays are going to win consistently, Zambrano is going to be a key contributor.

After back-to-back horrendous starts - 16 walks and 204 pitches in six innings total - Zambrano looked like a different pitcher Tuesday, allowing the one run on five hits (Justin Morneau's homer) and only two walks. He threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of his first 24 batters, went to three-ball counts only five times, threw more than 13 pitches in only two innings for a total of 103 and retired the side in order four times, his first 1-2-3 innings since May 4.

"We needed that," Lugo said. "We needed that from him."

Zambrano and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez spent a lot of time the past few days watching tapes of earlier games, including his March 30 season-opening win over the Yankees.

"That helped me a lot," Zambrano said. "And I was concentrating on every pitch I threw."

They made some adjustments in his stride and release point, and Hernandez told him to "bring it down a notch" on the mound and slow down. The results were a nice rhythm and a smooth night.

"Like night and day," catcher Brook Fordyce said.

"He seemed in total control out there, of himself especially," manager Lou Piniella said. "He never fought himself. He got himself in a good rhythm. And actually was a strike machine, wasn't he? It was a really good game. This is some good film for him to watch."

The score was 1-1 going to the sixth when Aubrey Huff, hitting .305 over his past 16 games, doubled, Jose Cruz walked and Lugo battled back from an 0-and-2 count to foul off three Kyle Lohse pitches and break the game open with a three-run homer to left. Crawford, who was moved from center back to left in the seventh, preserved the lead with a sliding catch of Lew Ford's liner with two on.

"We're not looking to set any records, we're looking to be competitive," Crawford said. "This is more like it."

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