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Winning games -- maybe more

By JOHN ROMANO and MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


What the Rays like about Russ Johnson is his versatility. He can play third base, he can play second base, he can play shortstop. Give him enough chances, he also can play hero.

Johnson has helped the Rays avoid a horrible first week of spring with winning hits sandwiched around four losses. Johnson drove in the winner in the 11th inning against the Rangers on Wednesday and came through Sunday with a single in the ninth for a 7-6 victory against the Phillies in a split-squad game at Florida Power Park in St. Petersburg.

Hopeful of winning the starting job at second base, Johnson also knows his potential value as a utilityman. That was his role much of last season after being acquired from Houston in May. Johnson, Bobby Smith and rookie Brent Abernathy are contenders for the starting job at second.

"Whatever job the team offers me, I'm going to do the best I can do in it," Johnson said. "I'm the first to admit I ain't the best player there is, but I'm going to be the best player Russ Johnson can be every time I go out there."

BULLPEN WOES: In the first 10 spring games, the Rays bullpen has given up the tying or winning run three times in the eighth and ninth innings.

Esteban Yan gave up the winner against Florida in the opener and blew a save against Texas on Wednesday. Tanyon Sturtze, after four perfect innings in three appearances, blew a save Sunday.

"It wasn't like I was getting smoked. They just hit some well-placed balls," Sturtze said. "I wasn't going to be perfect forever."

STRONG SHOWING: It is a good possibility Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman will begin the season on the disabled list, so rookie Travis Harper has a chance to pitch himself into the starting rotation.

Harper has pitched seven shutout innings in two starts, giving up four hits without a walk.

"It doesn't matter what I think," Harper said when asked about his chances of making the team. "It all comes down to how I throw."

BIG TOE: Highly touted prospect Toe Nash begins workouts with the minor-leaguers at the spring training complex today. Nash is scheduled to be in the batting cage at 12:45 p.m.

NICE RECOVERY: Considering where he'd come from, Randy Winn had a pretty good day.

Winn spent Friday with grieving relatives at his grandmother's funeral in Los Angeles, then spent most of Saturday flying back. Despite the late arrival and two-hour bus ride to Fort Myers, he had two doubles off Twins left-hander Eric Milton.

"It's been a hectic couple days," Winn said. "I knew I'd be a little jet-lagged after flying all day and getting up early to take the bus, but I was pleased with the results."

Winn opened the game with a double down the rightfield line, went to third on Abernathy's bunt and scored on Damian Rolls' sacrifice fly. Winn doubled down the leftfield line in the second to score Andy Sheets.

Winn said the death of Ida Crowe, his maternal grandmother, was extremely tough on his mother and aunt. "I'm glad I was given the opportunity to support them," he said.

WASTED LEAD: The Rays had a 3-0 lead after 11/2 innings but gave it away with some sloppy play and poor pitching and lost to the Twins 9-4. Starter Derrin Ebert, who needed 50 pitches to get through two innings, and Sheets made errors in Minnesota's three-run second, and a fly ball off the glove of rightfielder Jose Guillen led to a four-run third against Travis Phelps.

Shortstop Mike Caruso, bidding for a utility role, was impressive with a bunt single, a double and several strong defensive plays. "There were some positives," manager-for-the-day Hal McRae said, "but we came up short. Much short."

CORPORATE COMMUNICATION: The marketing department would love to win over the fans in southwest Florida communities such as Fort Myers, and even sent the Rays Express 100-some miles for the game. But the baseball department didn't help much when the biggest names on the traveling squad were Guillen, Winn, Abernathy, Pat Borders and top prospect Josh Hamilton.

BIG Mc: McRae, who managed the Royals from May 1991 through the 1994 season, said he doesn't miss being in charge on a daily basis. Before joining the Rays as bench coach, he was hitting coach for the Reds and Phillies. "If I had an opportunity naturally I'd consider it, but I'm happy with what I'm doing," he said.

Today's schedule

The Rays host the Reds today at Florida Power Park at 1:05 p.m. Pre-game workouts begin at the stadium at 9:30 a.m.

Keep an eye on

Three prospects trying to make their first Opening Day roster are in the lineup today. Second baseman Brent Abernathy, third baseman Aubrey Huff and centerfielder Josh Hamilton will start for the Rays.

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