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No seventh heaven

The Rays lose their seventh straight, a 3-2 heartbreaker in 10 innings against the Blue Jays.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


photo
[AP photo]
Tampa Bay Devil Rays starting pitcher Bryan Rekar hangs his head as Toronto Blue Jays' Tony Batista rounds the bases on his solo home run during the second inning.
TORONTO -- The headline is the same, a 3-2 defeat that marked the Rays' seventh straight loss, extending a nightmarish start threatening to render their season irrelevant.

But the Rays would like to believe there is more to the story.

After six days of baseball best described -- at least in a family newspaper -- as brutal, the Rays actually played a good game Tuesday. They didn't make any errors. They pitched well. They stayed in the game all night. They rallied to tie the score in the ninth.

Only the ending was bad -- a first-pitch home run by Toronto's Jose Cruz off Tanyon Sturtze with one out in the 10th.

"You've got to win," manager Larry Rothschild said. "But if we play this way every night, we'll win our share. It's one of the better games we played, and we need to play a bunch of them. We pitched; we played good defense. We just haven't started to swing the bats consistently yet, but you've got to believe that will come in time."

There usually isn't much talk of moral victories in professional locker rooms, but when things are going this bad -- a major-league worst 1-7 record -- anything constructive is seen as a building block.

"We lost, but you can't keep this team down forever, I promise you that," said Russ Johnson, who homered in the sixth. "We're struggling right now, but we won't struggle forever. Things will turn around, and when they do, you just got to return it 10-fold.

"That's the way you do it, get a dog down and kick it. When you've been kicked, you don't like it. So the next time you get a dog down, you kick it even harder. I think we'll be fine."

The Rays knew going in the night would be tough. Toronto starter Chris Carpenter was 5-1 with a 1.31 ERA against them in six previous starts (including eight shutout innings Thursday), 3-0 with a 0.33 ERA in three complete games at SkyDome. (He is 30-33 with a 5.30 ERA against the rest of the league.)

photo
[AP photo]
After striking out for a second time, Greg Vaughn's face says it all for the Rays.
That left Rays starter Bryan Rekar little room for error, but he made small mistakes in the second inning of an otherwise strong performance. The first was a 1-and-2 pitch Tony Batista smacked over the leftfield fence. The second was a two-out walk to No. 9 hitter Jeff Frye. The third was a 2-and-2 pitch Shannon Stewart turned into a run-scoring double.

"I would say I was effectively wild," Rekar said. "I put my team into a bad predicament with that two-out walk."

The game was 2-0 until the sixth, when Johnson, in his second night on the job as the starting second baseman, homered to center.

The Rays tied it in the ninth when Fred McGriff, playing with a cold and a fever, drove closer Billy Koch's first pitch over the leftfield fence. It was the first home run -- and fifth extra-base hit -- of the season from the middle-of-the-order trio of Greg Vaughn, McGriff and Ben Grieve.

"He just happened to hit my bat," McGriff said of his 418th career homer. "I don't know how hard he throws. You just swing hard in case you hit it."

Sturtze was aggressive from the start, ripping through the eighth and ninth innings with six straight outs, and Rothschild didn't hesitate to send him out for the 10th. "He was still throwing the ball great, and he had good stuff," Rothschild said. "I thought he was going to give us our best shot to win, and he did."

Sturtze got a quick out but left a fastball up in the strike zone, and Cruz clobbered it.

"I made a bad pitch," Sturtze said. "It's just bad timing, bad everything. I had a chance to pick up the team, and I didn't do it tonight."

The Rays, given their dire straits, could have used the lift. Having dispatched second baseman Bobby Smith on Monday, Rothschild juggled the lineup. With limited options to tighten a defense that made 11 errors in the previous six games, he put Jose Guillen in right and moved Grieve to left. But with Vaughn unable to play leftfield due to a sore calf, that left the team's top hitter, Steve Cox, on the bench.

"When this happens in the middle of the season, it's not as noticeable. It's just that things haven't been going our way right off the bat," Rekar said. "We're still plugging away. We came back; that's a great sign. As a team we're still battling."

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