By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- With two outs in the ninth, a runner on first and Greg Vaughn up next as the potential tying run, everyone at Tropicana Field knew Russ Johnson had to find a way to get on base. Including Russ Johnson.
"My object there is obviously to walk or get a base hit, get hit by a pitch, do anything," Johnson said. "Then when I got to 3-and-2, I'm in defensive mode, trying just to stay alive."
Johnson did better. The Rays third baseman took Ryan Kohlmeier's payoff pitch over the leftfield wall for a 373-foot home run, bringing the Rays within one run of Baltimore and tying him for the team lead with three home runs.
"I was just trying to get on base because I got the big bopper behind me," Johnson said. "He tried to throw me a fastball inside; I just reacted and got the good part of the bat on it. Pretty simple."
Johnson's home run lead lasted three pitches as Vaughn drilled one to tie the score, but the fact Johnson is contending is somewhat surprising. The 28-year-old has nine career home runs and has never hit more than five, for Houston in 1999.
He is batting .326 with seven RBI, a hint bigger numbers may be on the way from the everyday second baseman.
"I'm not really worried about it, it's a long season. I just want to stay humble," he said. "I know how this is, this isn't my first rodeo. It may be my first time in the big leagues but I ain't stupid. I hope my (on-base percentage) is well up into the threes. That'd be nice for me because that means Greg Vaughn is driving in a lot of runs."
STARTING OUT: Damian Rolls made his first career start, going 1-for-4 with a double and a run scored. Rolls said there was no big gathering to watch him, just his fiancee and a batboy he played with in Venezuela.
"I haven't been able to sleep the past two nights," Rolls said. "For the last three days I've been as nervous as I don't know what. But once the national anthem played and I got on the field, it was just like it has been all my life."
RUDE VISITOR: David Segui finished the series 7-for-12 and has more hits (34) at Tropicana Field than any visiting player. Segui has a .425 average at the Trop, second to the Yankees' Bernie Williams (.451).
Life is not all good here for Segui, however. He was taken out of the game in the ninth after getting spiked in the left hand on a play at second base. He should be fine.
ALVAREZ ON THE MOUND: Wilson Alvarez is set to pitch in his first game in more than 11/2 years at 1 p.m. today at the Naimoli Complex in St. Petersburg.
Alvarez missed last season after arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder to repair a partially torn rotator cuff on May 25. Since signing with the Rays before the 1998 season, Alvarez has 15 wins in 53 games.
"I'm ready to go," he said. "I'm getting tired of this. Now is the time I get to work on my velocity."
NOT HITTING: Jose Mercedes' setting a career high with eight strikeouts highlighted one of the Rays' biggest weaknesses so far.
Tampa Bay has struck out 162 times, putting it on pace for 1,398 this season. That would smash the major-league record of 1,268 set by the 1996 Tigers.
QUIET PLEASE: Before the game, the Rays observed a moment of silence for longtime state legislator and St. Petersburg native Doug Jamerson, who died Saturday at age 53.
QUICK HITS: Jose Guillen had five consecutive putouts over the fourth and fifth innings, two shy of the American League record. He broke the streak when he threw out Delino DeShields at the plate in the second. ... The Rays have not won a series this season, 0-5-1. The last AL team to open the season with six non-winning series was the 1999 Orioles, who lost their first seven.
SUNDAY'S CROWD: 18,934
TROPICANA FIELD CAPACITY: 44,445
SEASON TOTAL: 173,995
PER-GAME AVERAGE: 19,333
2001 LARGEST CROWD: 41,546
2001 SMALLEST CROWD: 13,013
2000 PER-GAME AVERAGE: 19,368
1999 PER-GAME AVERAGE: 19,296
1998 PER-GAME AVERAGE: 30,939
Before the game, Rays players Steve Cox and Ben Grieve fielded questions from about 2,000 Tampa Bay youth league players. Midway through the session, one child stood and asked how he could "overcome the ball," because "almost every time I bat I get hit with the ball."
Cox answered first, giving a little advice: "About the only thing I can tell you is to wear your helmet and buckle your chin strap."
Grieve was next: "If you start to get a lot of bruises, maybe you should take a break."