tampabay.com

Umps on alert for friction

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO and MARC TOPKIN
Published April 18, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - The last time the Devil Rays and Red Sox met, Boston reliever Julian Tavarez popped Tampa Bay centerfielder Joey Gathright in the jaw with a right-hand sucker punch.

It was the latest chapter in the teams' feisty history and provides additional fuel to a three-game series that begins today at Fenway Park between the American League East's hottest teams.

Major League Baseball is watching as well. Spokesman Pat Courtney said in an e-mail a "heads up" has been given to umpires working the series.

Courtney said no pregame warnings will be given: "The umpires are just given a summary of the recent problems between the two clubs so they are aware of potential bad blood."

It was boiling during an exhibition game in Fort Myers when Tavarez, covering home, deliberately stepped on Gathright's right arm and slugged him as Gathright tried to push Tavarez away.

Asked if he has thought about seeing Tavarez, Gathright said, "There's nothing to think about. I could care less about Tavarez right now. If he's thinking about it and he wants to do something, that's on him. For me, basically, all I'm thinking about is getting a hit."

Gathright said he is ready to be booed by Red Sox fans and anticipates some lively conversation with those in the outfield seats.

"I'm looking forward to that," he said. "I love Boston and New York. That's baseball, with fans talking back and forth. I love it. I love all the pressure."

As for leftover hostility, leftfielder Carl Crawford , one of several players who raced to help Gathright, said, "That's long gone. We just want to go in, play some baseball and get out."

"We're going to play nice," Gathright said. "I think it will be fine. ... But he doesn't want to do that stuff again, trust me."

TOUGH ROAD: After the Red Sox, the Rays face the Rangers and Yankees to finish a nine-game road trip. The same teams then play at the Trop, followed by series at Oakland and Seattle.

"I was looking at the schedule and we have no breaks," Crawford said. "The good thing is, we aren't a break to other teams anymore."

Has the perception of the Rays changed?

"I don't know if it's changed for other people, as long as it's changed for us," Crawford. "As long as we think that, it doesn't matter what other teams think."

What matters, catcher Toby Hall said, is how the Rays play.

"I could care less who we're playing," he said. "We've been in this division way too long to worry about the big, bad Yankees and the big, burly Red Sox. They've got to worry about playing us."

COACHING UP: Good mental at-bats are one reason the Rays are walking more and striking out less. Another is hands-on work during games by hitting coach Steve Henderson .

Saturday, Henderson reminded hitters not to chase Royals pitcher Mike Wood 's sinker that was coming in low.

"Make him bring it up.' He must have said that 50 times if he said it once," manager Joe Maddon said. "The second time through (the batting order) they did a much better job of taking the pitch down and forcing the pitches more to the strike zone."

NOISE MAKERS: With 20,000 fans cheering for them Saturday at Tropicana Field, the Rays could barely hear themselves talk.

Maddon, who has been hoping to create a more raucous home atmosphere, couldn't have been happier.

"The Pit was fantastic," he said, invoking his nickname for the Trop. "In the past you've been able to hear conversations. You could talk to the umpire from that distance on a normal night. The fans have been fantastic. They're turning it into the Pit."

TRIPLE THE FUN: Crawford's triple Sunday was his 50th. Only 17 others have reached the mark before age 25. Crawford turns 25 on Aug.5.

Of the 509 players in the modern era with 50 or more triples, only nine had a better triples-to-games ration than Crawford's 10.7.

MISCELLANY: Infielder Luis Ordaz , expected to be out at least two months after left knee surgery, went home to Venezuela after the death of his father. ... The Rays have 19 home runs in 13 games. They didn't hit 19 last season until Game 26.