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Good things happen for Rays

Solid team effort, a little luck lead to second straight win, 5-3 over K.C.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- There were several opportunities for the Rays to feel good about things during Wednesday's 5-3 victory over Kansas City. Paul Wilson pitched very well during most of his five innings. Red-hot Russ Johnson had the big hit in a four-run outburst in the second. Doug Creek, Tanyon Sturtze and Esteban Yan allowed nary a hit during four dazzling innings of relief.

For catcher John Flaherty, the moment of truth came at the end of the eighth, when Sturtze left a pitch hanging over the plate and Royals star Mike Sweeney did nothing more damaging than pop it up for the final out.

"After the fact I said to Sturtze, 'You got away with a hanging splitter,' and that hasn't been happening," Flaherty said. "We made some mistakes tonight, but it's almost a feeling that the worm has turned and momentum is starting to go on our side a little bit.

'There's definitely a little different feeling that some good things are going to happen instead of waiting for bad things to happen."

It is but a small snapshot of a long season, but good things do seem to be happening.

The victory gave the Rays two straight wins and three in four games, just the second time this season they've had even that much success. It guaranteed them their first winning series of the season, the last team in the majors to do so. And it improved their record for new manager Hal McRae to 3-4, a significant improvement from the 4-10 mark under Larry Rothschild.

"The ball's rolling in the right direction. Two wins in a row, and that's how it starts," Johnson said.

"You can feel it when you step out on the field: 'Hey, we're going to win.' And the more we play good baseball, the more that's going to be expected from ourselves. We're going to expect it every dang time."

While the victory was big, it arguably was seen by the smallest audience in Rays history. The announced attendance was 11,119, just 63 more than Tuesday's all-time low, and this game was not televised; Tuesday's was.

With Wilson finally looking like the promising pitcher he appeared to be in spring training, the Rays got off to a good start, using their motion offense to run up a quick 5-0 lead off Jeff Suppan.

Johnson sparked the first run, extending his career-high hitting streak to eight games with a one-out single and scoring on Fred McGriff's single, and he was right in the middle of the second-inning explosion.

The rally started when Jose Guillen singled and Vinny Castilla followed with a well-placed hit-and-run single. By the time it ended, the Rays had sent 10 men to the plate, their first bat-around inning of the season.

Flaherty's single scored one run, and after an out and a bases-loading walk to Gerald Williams, Johnson delivered the big hit, ripping a curveball just inside the leftfield foul line. Flaherty and Martinez made it home easily, and Williams scored after running through a stop sign.

Wilson zipped through the first four innings, giving up a soft single to Alicea to start the game and not allowing another hit until Sweeney hit him on the back of the thigh with a ball to open the fifth.

Things quickly got worse when Dee Brown and Raul Ibanez followed with singles to load the bases, and they got messy when Martinez fielded what should have been a double-play grounder and threw past second. Two runs scored on the misplay and another on Rey Sanchez's sacrifice fly to make it 5-3.

But Wilson toughened, getting Alicea on a grounder, hitting Joe Randa and retiring Carlos Beltran on a fly.

"The fifth inning was big for me," Wilson said. "A lot of times that's been happening to me and I've been folding and not picking my teammates up. Tonight I felt like I picked my teammates up. Tonight was definitely a step forward."

The Rays managed just two singles the rest of the way, but they didn't need more as the bullpen performed flawlessly. Creek allowed just a walk in the sixth. Sturtze zipped through the seventh, surviving a two-out walk, and the eighth. And Yan was overpowering in the ninth, needing nine pitches to get the final three outs.

"These are the things we need to do," McRae said. "And the players are having fun doing it."

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