tampabay.com

A trouble-free moment

Playing at home for the first time since controversy erupted, Elijah Dukes delivers, hitting a bases-loaded single in the ninth inning to rally Tampa Bay to victory.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published May 29, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The last two times the Devil Rays played at Tropicana Field, Elijah Dukes sat. Since then, the troubled rookie outfielder received a message from the organization's brass. The next step was sending Dukes in front of Tampa Bay's court of public opinion for the first time.

The mixed reaction from the Tropicana Field crowd Monday wasn't strong either way - an anonymous blend of boos and cheers from the announced 14,769 - but after Dukes delivered the winning hit in the ninth in a 6-5 victory over the Tigers, many of those who remained were cheering him.

Dukes' first career walkoff hit ended with high-fives, smiles and chest bumps for the 22-year-old who played in front of the home crowd for the first time since the Times reported allegations that he sent death threats to his estranged wife and kids.

"I don't think a game-winning hit is going to chance public perception," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think the public will wait and see his reaction he makes over time."

Dukes' hit capped the Rays' 18th comeback win in their 21 victories and their sixth walkoff win.

Dukes swung at the first pitch from closer Todd Jones and hit a chopper over third baseman Brandon Inge and into shallow leftfield, scoring Delmon Young and Akinori Iwamura.

"Everybody gets anxious in RBI situations," said Dukes, who answered only baseball questions after the game. "All I was just planning on doing was putting the ball in play and running down so they didn't turn a double play."

Young and Iwamura led off the ninth with singles off Jones. Pinch-hitter Josh Wilson laid down a bunt to third to move both runners over. With first base open, the Tigers walked pinch-hitter Greg Norton.

"I didn't think they would walk Norton to get to me," Dukes said. "I always thought I was a threat, but I'll take it though. I was surprised they walked him. I mean, you've got the top of the lineup so anyone can do damage."

After teammates mobbed Iwamura at the plate, they immediately went to Dukes, who avoided the now-customary celebratory shaving cream pie.

"I've got dry eyes so if that shaving cream got into my eyes I'd probably be on the DL or something," Dukes said.

Starter Edwin Jackson pitched his best game as a Devil Ray, tying his career high in strikeouts with nine. Jackson left trailing by one, then reliever Chad Orvella allowed two runs, facing just three batters.

Omar Infante hit a two-run single in the second, one pitch after a fan in the third-base seats reached into play and caught a foul pop in front of Iwamura. Carl Crawford's throw home sailed high and hit Jackson, who lost it in the lights, in the right cheek.

The Rays tied it at 2 in the fourth. Tigers starter Chad Durbin otherwise held them in check, yielding just the two runs on three hits over six innings. The Rays came back with one each in the seventh and eighth innings.

That set the stage for Dukes' hit. And finally the Rays could put another hurdle in the Dukes saga behind them.

"I thought it went pretty well overall," said Maddon, who with primary owner Stuart Sternberg met with Dukes on Sunday in Chicago. "The fan acceptance, I think I heard a smattering of boos but not a whole lot.

"Again, we were just trying to do the right things."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.