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One big swing redeems Witt

Rays 7, Mariners 6: The struggling newcomer socks a three-run homer to cap a comeback win.

By TOM JONES
Published September 4, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - As Devil Rays first baseman Kevin Witt marched to the plate in the eighth inning Sunday, he had atonement on his mind.

Not a whole lot had gone right since he got the call from Triple-A Durham two weeks ago. He came into the game batting a paltry .200. He was a quiet 0-for-3. And in the field, he felt out of sorts, especially after botching a couple of balls Sunday.

But all of it - the struggles at the plate and the problems in the field - disappeared when he hit a ball that disappeared into the leftfield seats. Witt's redemption came in the form of a three-run, opposite-field homer that gave the Rays a 7-6 victory over the Seattle Mariners in front of an announced 14,501.

"Since I've come up, I think I've been pressing a little bit," Witt said. "I think I've been kind of anxious, trying to do too much. I think it's just a matter of time before I can relax up there and do what I'm capable of. Getting a hit, especially a home run that's a game-winner, that's big."

Down 6-2 after five innings and 6-4 entering the eighth, the Rays erased the deficit and won for only the fifth time in 69 games this season when trailing after seven innings. Delmon Young's single and a Ty Wigginton walk set up Witt's two-out homer, his second with the Rays since joining the team Aug. 25.

"I know Witter felt like he had something to prove, and he did," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think he just wanted to make up for some (defensive) things. You make mistakes in a game, you want to be in that moment. He's the kind of guy that wants to get that second chance to redeem himself, and he certainly did."

Just last week, Witt, 30 and a veteran of 129 big-league games with four teams, was named the International League MVP after hitting 36 homers, the most in the minors.

But his karma had not carried over, especially in the field. Sunday, he muffed a pickoff attempt and let a hard, yet playable, grounder skip past him.

"I kind of have been struggling a little bit," Witt said. "I'm not really uncomfortable, but I have been struggling out there. That's the way it goes. So it was a little bit of redemption to be able to go up there and get a hit that wins a game for us."

It nearly didn't happen. Maddon said if the Mariners had removed starting pitcher Felix Hernandez for a left-handed reliever, he would have had right-hander Rocco Baldelli pinch-hit for the left-handed hitting Witt.

Instead, the right-hander stayed in the game and served up Witt's homer.

"Felix made three bad pitches," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said, "and all three ended up in the seats."

Wigginton and Greg Norton homered earlier to help the Rays (55-82) mount a comeback. Witt's homer not only gave the Rays the victory but a team record. It was the team's 163rd home run of the season, breaking the franchise record of 162 in 2000.

The comeback also was made possible by solid relief. Brian Stokes made his major-league debut and pitched four decent innings, giving up two runs.

After Chad Orvella allowed four runs (one unearned) to five batters (no outs), the trio of Ruddy Lugo, Brian Meadows and Seth McClung combined to shut down the Mariners. They pitched five innings, allowing no runs and only three hits. Meadows got the win and McClung pitched the ninth, walking one and striking out two for his fourth save.

"We just stayed after it," Maddon said. "We just kept pressing. Everyone contributed and then Witter ... he's a pro. I felt good about him in that situation. That was good stuff. That was a very big moment for us."