Tampa Bay continues to get bad breaks, this time from the Trop catwalk.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- As if it wasn't enough that ace Albie Lopez got knocked around in Friday night's 8-6 loss to Cleveland, as if it wasn't enough that their comeback bid fell short, as if it wasn't enough that they lost their major-league-leading 20th game, the Rays found themselves upstaged and upset by a play involving a Tropicana Field catwalk.
The game itself, played before an announced 16,478, was interesting. The high-octane Indians, who have won six in a row and 15 of 19, roared to a 7-1 lead against Lopez, primarily due to Ellis Burks, who had a three-run homer and a run-scoring double. But the Rays battled back, scoring four runs and getting the tying run to the plate in the eighth when Ben Grieve and Greg Vaughn struck out, and again in the ninth, when Aubrey Huff hit into a Roberto Alomar-produced double play and Randy Winn grounded out.
"We had a shot," manager Hal McRae said. "I'm most proud of the fact the players didn't quit. We lost, but we were down by six runs. Then the relievers came in and put the Cleveland offense in check and offensively our guys battled back.
"Against this team it's just a matter of if we're going to score enough to compete, which we did. And if we consistently compete, we're going to be okay. But if we quit, or we lay down, we're not going to be okay."
While the Rays made it exciting with their comeback, Omar Vizquel stamped the night special with an amazing first-inning play that may have kept the Rays from seizing early control.
With two outs and a man on first, Vaughn hit a towering drive to left-center. Leftfielder Burks and centerfielder Kenny Lofton drifted toward the fence as they tracked the ball, then threw up their arms in that only-at-the-Trop look of confusion as the ball struck the B-ring catwalk, which is second from the top, about 145 feet above the field and in play.
It was the 31st fair ball to strike a catwalk in 255 games at the Trop, but this collision had a surprise and unprecedented ending -- Vizquel, Cleveland's nimble and ever-alert shortstop, saw the ball rolling off the catwalk platform, raced back and caught it on the fly.
"I'm looking up and I see Omar running toward the bullpen and I'm like, "What's Omar doing?' reliever Paul Shuey said. "Then he catches the ball and they call Vaughn out and it's like, there's arena baseball for you."
Vizquel, who tends to look magical in the field anyway, was pretty proud of himself for making the ball appear.
"When I saw it hitting the rail, I started walking toward the outfield," Vizquel said. "Then all of the sudden, the ball started like rolling down and I said, "Oh, my god, I have a chance to catch this ball.' I started running out there and the ball kind of went in my direction."
McRae, who lost the flight of the ball, said it was more than that: "Instinctively, I guess, he ran to the ball. How he saw it, I don't know. Maybe he has X-ray vision.
"That is very strange for a visiting player to play the rafters that well. He played it like it's his home park and he's been playing in it for 10 years. How did he know where it would go? No one else saw the ball. Just him and the third-base umpire (Paul Emmel). At least he told me he did."
Some Indians said Lofton or Burks would have caught the ball; some Rays said it would have been a two-run home run. Vaughn, who is struggling with a .219 average, wasn't sure what to think.
"It's crazy," he said. "You hit a ball good enough to go out at home ... whatever. Still, I had some at-bats to do some things and I didn't get it done. I don't know. It's just the way it's going right now." Lopez had been going great through five starts, but struggled against Detroit on Sunday and lasted five innings against his former team Friday, allowing nine hits and seven runs.
"I had real good stuff, probably some of the best stuff I've had all year, but I couldn't get Ellis Burks out. He beat me twice, and that was four runs right there," Lopez said. "I put the ball where I wanted to, and they just hit the ball. I can't say anything else."
On this kind of night, there wasn't much else to say.