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Lopez guts one out

Rough start doesn't phase the Rays ace as he goes seven innings in a 4-2 win over the Royals, lifting Tampa Bay out of baseball's cellar.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It can start in the morning and build as game time approaches. The Rays have developed so much confidence in Albie Lopez, they feel so good about their chances for victory on the days he pitches, that little can deter them. Certainly nothing as little as the two-run deficit they faced in the early innings of Tuesday's game, an eventual 4-2 win over Kansas City.

"I thought we'd win the ballgame," Rays manager Hal McRae said. "This afternoon, when we were down by two, I never felt we were going to lose the ballgame, and I don't think the players felt they were ever going to lose the ballgame. The chatter on the bench, the enthusiasm on the bench, there was a good feeling we were going to come back, not knowing how."

They came back in a hurry, with Gerald Williams hitting a two-run homer in the third and Greg Vaughn hitting another in the fifth. It was an impressive win, the Rays' second in three games, and enough to relieve them, at 6-14, of the worst record in the majors. But it was done in relative privacy. The announced attendance was 11,056, the smallest of the 251 games the Rays have played at Tropicana Field in three-plus seasons, and the actual attendance appeared to be under 10,000.

But the real reason they were able to come back was Lopez. He overcame the spotty start, allowing two runs on four hits in the first two innings and laboring though 35 pitches in the third, to finish with a strong seven-inning outing, a 3-1 record and a 1.66 ERA that is second-best in the league.

"The only adjustment I made was to not let them score anymore," Lopez said. "I knew whatever I had to do, I couldn't let them score anymore because I had to give (my teammates) a chance to come back at least. I knew if I gave up a run in the third inning that it might have sunk the team, so I knew I had to make the pitches."

The Royals got one run, but only one run, in the first. They had men on first and third with no outs, but Lopez traded a run for a double-play grounder, then struck out the dangerous Jermaine Dye.

He kept them to one again in the second despite a walk, a stolen base, the first of catcher John Flaherty's two throwing errors and two singles. Lopez pitched out of a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the third, and he stranded a runner at third in the fourth.

"He didn't have his good stuff tonight, but he found a way to get it done and made big pitches when he had to," Flaherty said. "He'll probably tell you it was a battle for him. That's probably more impressive than when he goes out there with great stuff, what he did tonight."

Brian Meadows retired the first eight Rays batters, but with Lopez battling to keep them in the game, they rallied in the third. Shortstop Felix Martinez, he of the .304 season average, once again got them started, this time with a perfectly placed drag bunt.

Williams made it sting more, driving the next pitch into the leftfield seats to tie the score with his first homer since opening night. "I think Felix created most of that," Williams said. "He got on with two outs, and the guy was basically saying, "Okay, there's two outs, I want to make sure I get ahead,' and that ultimately put me in position to be aggressive."

The Rays did it again in the fifth when Williams reached on a one-out infield single and Vaughn crushed an 0-and-1 pitch 396 feet and over the leftfield fence. It was Vaughn's fifth homer in the past 11 games and the 325th of his career, tying Willie Horton for 72nd place on the all-time list.

That was enough for Lopez, who was followed effectively by Rusty Meacham and Esteban Yan.

After three weeks, Lopez has firmly established himself as the Rays' best starter. Despite the lowest run support of the group, he is 3-1; the others are 1-8.

"We're more confident when he pitches than other times because we know he's going to keep us in the ballgame," McRae said. "And even if the other pitchers were to fall in line and follow suit, there's a little more confidence when the No. 1 guy's going. So hopefully the other four can line up and march."

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