tampabay.com

For one day, it all comes together

Rays 8, Yankees 0: Terrific pitching, a power display and a big, raucous crowd add up to a memorable victory.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published September 24, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - So much of this season the Devil Rays would like to forget.

But Saturday was a night they would like to remember.

And repeat.

Tropicana Field was rocking. The pinstriped All-Stars known as the Yankees were in town for a late September visit. And the home team rolled to an easy win, 8-0.

The crowd of 33,492 seemed mostly pro-Yankee (at least at the start of the night), but the Rays looked at it more as a sign of things to come.

"We have to tip the Trop in our favor, and games like tonight allow us to tip (it)," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to win to get that number of people here on a consistent basis regardless of who we are playing. That is our goal. And as we do, our players will respond favorably to that. There's no question in my mind. We've got to do this first. If we build it, they will come. We just have to get it done."

They did it impressively Saturday, shutting out the Yankees for just the fourth time in 146 meetings, the first in nearly four years and first at the Trop since 1998.

The biggest reason was the dazzling performance of starter J.P. Howell, who spun seven sterling innings to earn his first Tampa Bay victory. Ty Wigginton homered for the 22nd time and B.J. Upton for the first this season as the Rays continued their odd mastery of Randy Johnson. And, with Kansas City's loss, the Rays (59-95) even shed the label as the worst team in the majors.

Howell, acquired from Kansas City for Joey Gathright in June and winless in his first six Rays starts (and in the majors in nearly a year), said the difference was knowing more about what he was doing and how to stay under control. Working with veteran catcher Josh Paul didn't hurt, either.

"I've been asking questions, trying to learn, and it showed a little bit tonight," he said.

Howell didn't throw much harder than he had been, hitting 85 mph on occasion but working mostly in the high 70s and low 80s. But he hit his spots, was more effective with his curveball and mixed his pitches better (a credit to Paul, as he shook him off only once), plus he threw only 38 balls in 97 pitches.

"I think the most overwhelming positive was that he threw a lot of strikes tonight," Maddon said.

The high-powered Yankees, with only Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi missing from their lineup, managed only three hits.

"I don't think anyone had good at-bats against Howell," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We didn't scare anybody tonight."

Johnson is usually an intimidating presence on the mound, but the Rays, for whatever reason, tend to be very comfortable against him. The Rays scored five runs on seven hits to leave him 1-2 with a 9.00 ERA this season and 3-5, 5.43 for his career, his highest against any team. Johnson said, "I got my work in, I guess, but I wasn't pleased with the outcome."

Maddon was. "We've had good at-bats," he said. "I don't know exactly why, but we have."

When Upton walked in the clubhouse Saturday afternoon, Wigginton and Greg Norton teased him that he hadn't hit a homer since being called up Aug. 1, and that rookie Ben Zobrist already had two. "Then Norton said, 'I'm feeling one for you tonight,' " Upton said. "So, thank you Greg Norton."

For the younger Rays, it is still a curious and odd scene when the Yankees (or the Red Sox) visit and the high percentage of their fans in the stands makes it sound like they're the home team.

They want to see it change, too.

"It's kind of tough when there are more of their fans than ours," Upton said. "We're just looking to turn it around."