tampabay.com

Smiles all around

A 10-inning Rays victory caps a good first experience at Disney.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published May 16, 2007


LAKE BUENA VISTA - There was so much said about the Devil Rays playing their home-away-from-home series at Disney, but as the ball shot through the infield and teammates mobbed him on the infield, Brendan Harris didn't really care where he was.

"All that mattered," Harris said, "was that we were hitting in the bottom of the inning and we got the win."

Though the Ballpark at Disney wasn't sold out and centerfielder Rocco Baldelli was sidelined with another hamstring problem, the Rays considered their first foray into Central Florida a success Tuesday.

Especially the way it ended, with Harris singling in Carlos Pena in the 10th to give the Rays a 4-3 win over the Rangers.

"Eleven on a scale of 10," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Without the win it would have been a great night. With the win, it's a day we'll mark in team history, a great signpost."

After another strong start by James Shields eight innings, three runs, five strikeouts, retired 12 of his first 13 and 11 of his last 12 and a series of wasted opportunities (a season-high 14 left on, 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position), the Rays (16-22) rallied in the 10th for their fourth walkoff win of the season.

Pena drew a leadoff walk from Scott Feldman, then went to third on Delmon Young's single to right. The Rangers then intentionally walked struggling Dioner Navarro (.200)- an illogical move despite manager Ron Washington's claims they had "no other choice" - to load the bases and pitch to the red-hot Harris (.340), who capped his first career four-hit night by slapping a first-pitch fastball to left.

The announced attendance was 8,443, short of a sellout at the stadium which has 9,500 seats and room for several thousand more with lawn seating and standing room. A couple hundred seats were unoccupied in the top corners of the stadium (which may be the result of being overpriced at $35), but the lower level was packed, and hundreds of people paid $15 to sit on the grassy berms.

"We didn't really know what to expect, but it was great. Hopefully we made some new fans," Harris said. "When you don't see too many empty seats, that's kind of a nice feeling. And the sounds don't echo off the seats. There were a little fireworks out there. It made for a nice night."

Ticket windows had a steady crowd starting in late afternoon, and the concession lines were so long additional stands are expected to be opened tonight. At least several hundred, and perhaps up to 1,000, were comps, but the Rays said walkup sales were brisk.

Though his expectation to have "every seat filled" went unfulfilled, Sternberg was pleased with the atmosphere and the late-buying crowd.

"They were rooting for the home team," he said. "It would have been nice if we didn't have to think about it and they stormed the gates and it sold out weeks ago, but once that didn't happen this is perfect."

In their effort to attract Orlando-area fans, the Rays wanted to create a more intimate version of Tropicana Field, importing some of the good, and some of the annoying, aspects of their usual pre- and in-game routines. The stadium, usually used by the Braves in spring training, was transformed to represent the Rays' home with temporary signage, and green Rays T-shirts were displayed prominently in stadium shops and spotted throughout the crowd.

There were a few things the Rays had to get used to playing in an outdoor, spring-training sized stadium 90 miles from home, but manager Joe Maddon said the experience was a good one.

"Much better than expected," he said. "In advance people came in feeling as though it would be less than a major-league experience. I thought it was a major-league experience. They did a great job setting it all up. I feel like I'm in a major-league clubhouse. I felt the excitement of a major-league crowd. I thought it was well done."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.