JOHN C. COTEY
MARLINS 11, RAYS 4: Fans stay since, hey, you never know, but Tampa Bay can't pull off another sweep.
ST. PETERSBURG - They should have been heading for the exits. Instead, almost all of the 23,442 fans inside Tropicana Field stayed put Sunday, rising to their feet in the eighth inning with each Devil Rays hit, cheering for an improbable rally.
It sure beat going out into a potential thunderstorm.
While the recent string of successes may have given fans enough reason to hope for a comeback, the rumble of thunder most likely kept the crowd in place to witness the final gasp in an 11-4 loss to Florida.
The crowd got to see Joey Gathright's first major-league hit but little else positive as the Marlins pounded starter Chad Gaudin and two relievers for 17 hits, including seven doubles and a home run.
"We didn't pitch very well," said manager Lou Piniella. "That was the story of this game."
It was only the second loss in 17 games for the Rays and their first at home since June 8, dropping them back to .500 at 36-36. They also failed to set a record for most consecutive interleague wins, settling for tying the Yankees record of 13.
And for those prematurely basking in a playoff race, more bad news as the Red Sox and Yankees won to pull a little further away from the Devil Rays.
But Piniella didn't want to dwell on the loss too much. The Rays' recent run of success - 26-8 since May 20, including a 12-game winning streak - has boosted expectations to the point where not sweeping the defending world champions is disappointing, even if Tampa Bay has won six straight series.
"If we keep winning series, you have to be happy," Piniella said.
Gaudin wasn't too happy, turning in his second unimpressive start. Last week against Toronto he walked four in the first inning and was pulled, and while he found the strike zone Sunday, he may have been too accurate.
The Marlins had four straight hits in the third, including Jeff Conine's bases-loaded double over Gathright's head, and then chased Gaudin after former Ray Damion Easley homered to start the sixth, followed by Mike Mordecai's double.
Easley and Mordecai, the No. 8 and 9 hitters, were 6-for-8 with four runs, two doubles and a homer to move the Marlins back into first place in the National League East.
Gaudin (1-2) thought he had good stuff, but "I just left it up sometimes," he said. "When you get a guy 0-and-2 and don't put him away, that's going to haunt you."
Florida's Carl Pavano, perhaps the hottest pitcher in the NL, had no trouble putting away the Rays, and was especially dominant in the first four innings. Pavano (9-2) matched his season-high with eight strikeouts, all against the Rays 2-3-4-5 hitters, and allowed just five hits.
"He has a good fastball, good slider, good split, and he didn't miss over the plate with any of them," said Rocco Baldelli, who was 2-for-4 and struck out twice. "When you have stuff like that ... there's not too much you can do about it."
The Florida bullpen was a different story in the eighth inning as Gathright's hit helped get the bases loaded with no outs. Julio Lugo doubled in two runs to knock the Marlins' big lead down to 10-3 and give the crowd a reason to stay dry.
But it fizzled, and only then were the Rays faithful willing to admit defeat and hope for a better outcome outside.