tampabay.com

On to N.Y., with a purpose

RAYS 13, ORIOLES 3: Tampa Bay moves back over .500 and gets within 91/2 of the Yanks, the closest they've been to top this late.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published July 8, 2004


BALTIMORE - The Devil Rays have made 16 previous visits to Yankee Stadium, but none has ever been like the one that starts tonight.

They've been there in April and May when it was too early to know what mattered, and they've been there late in the season when the games only mattered to the Yankees.

But after beating the Orioles 13-3 Wednesday behind an outstanding effort by Rob Bell, the Rays go to New York with a specific purpose.

The win improved them to 42-41, extended their streak of nonlosing series to 11, kept them 31/2 games behind second-place Boston and - of most topical interest - moved them to within 91/2 games of the first-place Yankees, the closest they've ever been to the top this late in the season.

"We go in there with a chance to gain some ground," All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "We've got a little more to play for than in previous times."

"It's completely different," Damian Rolls said. "We've always gone into Yankee Stadium, or they'd come to us, with the same attitude, like it's our glory to beat the Yankees. Now it's not a sense of just trying to play spoiler. Now it's for our cause, not to spoil theirs."

The four-game series gives the Rays a chance to take measure of how far they have come, a 32-13 record that is the best in the majors since May 20 aside. The Yankees have been, and may always be, the team against which the Rays are measured, even across the Tampa Bay area.

"I think we're kind of curious to see how we'll do," Aubrey Huff said. "I think we're interested to see if we can compete and if we can play with them."

So far this season, the Rays are 3-5 against the Yankees. Usually, it's not that close, the Yankees leading the overall series 70-30.

The Rays tend to fare much better against the Orioles, their 54 wins (against 52 losses) their most against any opponent.

Wednesday, they grabbed an early lead, Bell kept it that way with a stellar outing and they piled on heavily at the end against the woeful Orioles.

Bell was dumped from the rotation last month and moved back for what was supposed to be a two-start temporary assignment. But he followed a decent outing Friday at Florida with a dominating seven-plus shutout innings, allowing only two hits and one walk, and earned another opportunity.

"We're definitely going to keep him in the rotation after the All-Star break," manager Lou Piniella said. "He gave us a couple nice outings out of the bullpen and then we reinstated him, and since then he's pitched as well as anybody we have."

Bell said that was his plan.

"I knew I was going to have to capitalize," Bell said. "I could smell some of the blood in the water, and I just knew when I got the ball I was going to have to make it happen."

Piniella has been concerned about the lack of offense the Rays have generated lately, but the 13 runs (more than their past four games combined) and 14 hits had just as much to do with how badly the Orioles played and pitched. The 11 walks the Rays drew tied their team record.

"We took advantage," Piniella said. "We got some big hits, we found some holes, we scored some runs."

The Rays took a 3-0 lead in the first, combining one hit, three walks, two errors and a sac fly, then spent most of the next hour and a half wasting opportunities, stranding runners in each of the first six innings.

They finally expanded the margin with three runs in the seventh, and the game got downright ugly in the ninth as the Rays scored seven more, sending 13 men to the plate.

Having lost on Sunday in Miami and getting swept in Monday's day-night doubleheader, the Rays showed a lot by coming back to split the series and improve to 4-3 on a treacherous 11-game road trip.

But the real test begins tonight with the first of four game against the mighty Yankees.

"Let's see what happens in New York," Piniella said.