Rays won't be content with keeping it close

YANKEES 4, RAYS 2: Tampa Bay battles but again fails to prove itself vs. mighty New York.

Published July 21, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - For most of their seven years, the Devil Rays would find some satisfaction in making a good showing when they faced elite teams such as the Yankees. But the reaction in their clubhouse Tuesday after playing well but losing 4-2 made it clear that coming close is no longer good enough.

"You guys can write all you want about how we competed against these guys," Aubrey Huff said. "But the bottom line is they just beat us. And that's what they're built to do."

After a thrilling win Monday night, the Rays were primed for more, hoping to ride the excitement of another large Tropicana Field crowd (an announced 27,613) to win a series against the Yankees earlier than September for the first time.

They battled essentially evenly for more than three hours, but they came up short in the end, the Yankees going ahead on Gary Sheffield's two-run homer off Victor Zambrano in the sixth and their dominating bullpen keeping it that way.

As the Rays tried to explain the latest installment in the lopsided series (75-31 Yankees), the frustration was obvious.

"You can see I don't like losing to the Yankees," manager Lou Piniella said. "I really don't like losing to anybody, but I don't like losing to the Yankees."

The teams have played 14 times this season, and the Yankees have won 10, with five more games remaining in New York in September. The Rays - who are 41-38 against the rest of the major leagues - know they can't match up with them, not with a payroll disparity of more than $160-million ($23-million compared to $184-million), so they have to take advantage of the chances they get and not hurt themselves with mistakes.

Tuesday, they didn't get a hit in eight opportunities with a runner in scoring position, including having Carl Crawford at third with one out in the first. And of the four Yankees who scored, two got on by walks and a third was hit by a pitch.

"We played two good baseball games," Piniella said. "Today we walked some people, and they scored. We hit a batter, and he scored. At the same time we didn't take advantage of our opportunities. That happens. What are you going to do?"

The Rays led 2-1 going to the sixth, scratching for runs with a sacrifice fly and a double-play grounder. But the game turned when Sheffield, the Tampa native, turned on Zambrano's misplaced 2-and-2 fastball and knocked it over the leftfield fence, the first homer Zambrano had allowed in more than six weeks.

Though Zambrano logged his personal hat trick - a walk, a hit batter and a wild pitch - he showed better control. He walked three, his fewest in six starts, and struck out seven, though he did throw another 108 pitches, pushing his major league-leading total to 2,307.

"The only difference in the game was one pitch," Zambrano said. "I missed the location completely. It was supposed to be inside, and it was a fastball right down the middle."

"When you make one bad pitch, that's one bad pitch too many for those guys," Huff said.

Sheffield's homer carried a message, too, coming right after Zambrano hit Yankees captain Derek Jeter on the right hand, forcing him later to leave the game but not causing more than a bruise.

"I think that bothered him a little bit, but that's his personality," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "That's why you want him on your team."

Once the Yankees get the lead, they tend to keep it, especially when it's in the hands of setup man Tom Gordon and closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera. They are 45-3 when leading after six innings, 50-1 when leading after seven and 55-0 when leading after eight.

"If they have the lead in the seventh and eighth, you can pretty much just wish for the best," Huff said. "Gordon and Rivera are about as automatic as you can get."

And that just makes it even more frustrating.