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.500 and then some

In another memorable night, Dewon Brazelton takes no-hitter into eighth to help cap climb back from 18 games below .500

MARC TOPKIN
Published June 26, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Getting to .500 nearly was not the Devil Rays' biggest accomplishment of the night Friday.

Dewon Brazelton came as close as any Devil Ray to the franchise's first no-hitter, blanking the world champion Marlins until Mike Lowell doubled with two outs in the eighth.

Brazelton lost the no-hitter, but the Rays won the game 2-0, thrilling an electric Tropicana Field crowd of 25,157 and evening their record at 35-35, an impressive enough achievement.

The Rays, who were 10-28 on May 19, are the first team to make it from 18 games under back to .500 since the 1899 Louisville Colonels.

"I guess we made history tonight," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "It's a great feeling to be the only team to ever do that in modern-day baseball. But we just want to keep going forward."

The Rays have won 14 of their past 15, and their 25-7 record since May 20 is the best in the majors. They moved firmly into third place and, for those who dare to dream, within five games of AL wild card-leading Boston. Here's another ray of hope: The Marlins were 33-37 after 70 games last season, and they won the World Series.

The Tampa Bay community has been uncharacteristically abuzz over the team's success, and the excitement was obvious at the stadium, with deep lines at the windows by late afternoon (a team-record walkup sale of 7,162), a roaring ovation when the Rays took the field and a more thunderous one at end.

"That was the most enthusiastic crowd, since I've been here anyway, that rooted strictly for the home team," manager Lou Piniella said. "They were into the ballgame and all of them were Devil Rays fans. It's good to see."

Brazelton, 24, has had trouble establishing himself as a big-league pitcher since the Rays made him the third pick in the 2001 draft. He pitched so poorly last season that the Rays demoted him all the way to Class A Bakersfield to rebuild his delivery.

One year to the day later, he was almost unhittable.

Brazelton said he doesn't think much about what happened, but pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said it is obvious his hard work made a difference. "I told you guys this spring he's a different kid, he has a different mind-set, a different work ethic, and hopefully it pays off," Hernandez said.

Brazelton was called up from Triple A on June 3 and had two good outings and a bad one Saturday. The difference Friday was the ability to locate his fastball, which made his slider and changeup more effective.

"Just a tremendous effort," Piniella said.

Brazelton got to the eighth with the no-hitter thanks to some good defense, specifically by infielders Julio Lugo, Aubrey Huff and Robert Fick.

He did so despite walking six and hitting another and, as a result, didn't realize he was working on a no-hitter.

"I had so many runners on from all the walks, it really felt like people were hitting the ball," Brazelton said. "I was in the stretch a whole bunch. I wasn't really aware of it until I looked up there around the sixth inning and I thought, "They ain't got any hits.' "

He kept it that way for 72/3 innings, matching Tony Saunders' 1999 effort as the closest a Ray has come. Piniella was checking pitch-count totals with Hernandez as Brazelton got two quick outs in the eighth.

He went to a full count on Lowell, who fouled off three pitches before blasting a ball that dropped between blazing fast Crawford and centerfielder Joey Gathright and bounced over the left-centerfield wall.

Brazelton had thrown a professional career-high 125 pitches, and as soon as the ball hit the turf, catcher Toby Hall went to the mound and signaled toward the bench. Brazelton was tired, and he was having cramps in his right leg, so severe Hernandez wasn't sure he could have pitched the ninth anyway.

"He was gone," Hernandez said. "I didn't need Toby to tell me anything. The only thing we would have needed was a stretcher if he couldn't make it. He was done."

For most of the Rays, getting to .500 wasn't something to celebrate because they have higher goals, including Piniella talking about making a run at the second-place Red Sox.

"Let's just keep playing, let's not look at the standings, let's not look at the winning streak that we had," Huff said. "Let's just go out and play ball and be dumb like we have been and see what happens."

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