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Hit show makes for juicy ending

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Larry Rothschild has a tightly wound feeling. Tampa Bay's manager suspects that baseballs are juiced.

Maybe it figures, this being Tropicana Field. Tell me we aren't talking citrus canker. Hey, do you know what you get when you squeeze Tampa Bay's pitching staff? Lemon juice.

Don't pucker.

D-Rays promos scream the "Hit Show" theme. There'd better be a long-ball bundle. Saturday became a horror of inefficient pitching and knot-head defense, but along comes "Hit Show" electricity to cook up a rare happy ending.

For every run Tampa Bay pitchers surrendered, the "Hit Show" had a matcher. As advertised. Fred McGriff ripped two home runs. Jose Canseco nearly hit one through the roof.

Juiced? Well, juicy for sure.

Larry's mound minions, who keep getting mauled, almost botched it again. Sloppy throws and questionable decisions by Rays defenders were ugly contributors.

In the ninth, after the Rays testosteroned to a 9-7 lead, along comes supposedly trusty but lately wobbly closer Roberto Hernandez. Customers squirmed, remembering three ninth-inning Anaheim homers No. 39 absorbed in a 9-6 failure Friday night.

Roberto struggled again, with help from third baseman Vinny Castilla, who allowed the Angels life, making an errant throw on what might have been the final out in a 9-8 win. Tampa Bay's third physical error, but some mental. Anaheim soon squared the score.

Fans fit to be tied.

But then, for a final taste, the Rays turned to "Hit Show" pinch player Bubba Trammell. With the D-Rays and patrons in a sweet-tooth ache, having dropped six of seven games to begin a new Trop season, Thomas Bubba (real middle name, no nick) Trammell delivered a double scoop of yum-yum, mashing a fifth Saturday homer for the home team, engraving an 11-to-9 smile on thousands of faces.

That's the way it's going for Bubba and associates. Every game, the hitters show up not knowing if it'll take six runs to win or nine or 11. Rays pitching is that brittle. Team earned-run average actually dropped, eight earned runs putting it at a woeful 8.76.

Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman, $15-million worth of starting pitchers, remain physically unable to attempt their jobs. Hernandez, a $6-million reliever, has been a back-to-back fright.

"Most nights, we've played good defense," Rothschild said. "Unquestionably, our main problem is pitching, especially the erratic situation with starters. We lose our No. 1 and No. 2 guys. That causes me to use relievers in those roles, which weakens our bullpen."

Deadly dominoes.

Those five Saturday dingburgers were fun to eat. Homers are flying major-league fences more than when the legendary boomers were Ruth, Mays, Maris and Aaron. First reason is obvious. Oh, yeah, it's pitching. Not only the D-Rays are huffing. Depth of arms has never been so shallow.

Are baseballs also juiced?

Who's scripting the orders for Costa Rica, where commissioner Bud Selig gets his hardballs built? The tighter they're stitched, the rock-harder a baseball becomes, the farther it can fly.

Rothschild has visual, painful evidence. He has spent too much of an agonizing April watching baseballs fly extreme distances and also frequently ricochet off the Trop's well-elevated but ugly and infamous catwalks.

"For two seasons, it happened maybe once a month," he said. "Now it's a near-nightly occurence." Larry's dead right. In all of 1998-99, he saw 14 batted balls go clanging into cat country. Up in the rings. In just eight games this season, there've already been five.

On a pace for 50!

"Maybe they should put dimples on them (baseballs)," said the boss Ray. "They keep coming off bats like golf balls." Canseco, in the fifth inning, made like Tiger Woods with a driver.

Mr. Big Arms put his wood on a Ramon Ortiz pitch, a crowd of 22,042 immediately rising to gush. If it'd been an outdoor ballpark, this one would have merited tracking by air traffic control.

However, keeping it in house, the well-biceped homer went bumping off the Trop's so-called C-ring, a catwalk 110 feet above the centerfield warning track. Get out the crooked tape measure.

D-Rays longball scientists, who can be catty, estimated the Canseco crunch would've gone 472 feet. Longest smack, if we can trust science, in Tropicana Field history.

Nobody detected an ounce of juice dripping from Jose's baseball as it came back to fake-grass earth, down from that C-ring. Rothschild was happy this time, because his guys were better at dialing long distance.

Larry's idea, though, about juiced spheres, had another large, pulpy glass of evidence.

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