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Bad start no omen in happy end to trip
Three homers and clutch pitching help Rays put encouraging finish to first month.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 30, 2007
After hitting a three-run homer, B.J. Upton returns to a dugout of high fives.
OAKLAND, Calif. - The Devil Rays looked like they were quickly headed to another long afternoon Sunday as Scott Kazmir got off to a rough start.
His sixth pitch was knocked out of the park by A's No. 2 hitter Mark Ellis, his 12th pitch was treated similarly by Eric Chavez, the next two batters crushed balls to the warning track, as Kazmir admitted later he wasn't aggressive enough at the start.
But unlike Thursday and Saturday, the bad beginning wasn't a sign of things to come.
Kazmir settled down for a solid seven-inning outing; red-hot B.J. Upton, recovered Rocco Baldelli and rallying Elijah Dukes hit homers; and reliever Brian Stokes bailed out Shawn Camp in the eighth before turning it over to Al Reyes as the Rays rebounded for a 5-3 win.
"All's well that ends well, " a relieved manager Joe Maddon said.
For all the trauma of the week, with two ugly losses and questions about the players' readiness, the Rays finished a rugged road trip 2-3, won a series in Oakland for just the second time in 15 tries during their 10 seasons and jetted home with a respectable 11-14 April record.
The first inning continues to be a problem, as the Rays have been outscored 24-4 and have allowed a major-league most 13 home runs. Kazmir said his problems where his own doing. "That was not the way I wanted to start, " he said. "I was just trying to find my way through the game early, trying to ease into it. I need to stop doing that and need to start just going after guys."
Maddon said Kazmir never looked comfortable, which made sense as this was the first of his 70 starts with only one strikeout, but he did mix in enough changeups and spotted his fastball to both sides of the plate to keep the A's from scoring.
He got some help, too, including a fifth-inning play when the threat of Delmon Young's arm saved a run. Shannon Stewart singled to right with two on and two out, A's third-base coach Rene Lachemann held Dan Johnson at third to load the bases and Kazmir escaped by getting Ellis to pop up.
Upton, moved up to sixth in the order as he ranks among the AL top five in batting, on-base and slugging percentage and hitting with runners in scoring position, did his part with the bat.
He crushed a fastball from rookie Dallas Braden, who was shipped back to the minors after the game, for a three-run homer that easily cleared the 15-foot-high left-centerfield wall 388 feet from home. The blast extended his team-leading RBI total to 20, hiked his average to .365 and matched his previous career total of five homers, a team best - all in 25 games.
"I'm scared, " Upton cracked. "I've never hit this well this early. I really don't know what to do right now."
The Rays expanded the lead when Baldelli, returning to the lineup for the first time since bruising his right knee Thursday, and Dukes hit the team's first back-to-back homers of the season in the fifth. And they hung on when Camp, restored to key late-inning duty, allowed a pair of singles to start the eighth, but Stokes got a huge out by getting Chavez to pop out.
"We definitely came out ready to play today, " Upton said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8801. View his at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.