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Rupe finds form; Rays win

The starter, and many teammates, have a stellar night in beating Mets 7-5.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 9, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Rare sight at Tropicana Field Friday night, the Rays celebrating a victory.

Even more unusual discussion afterward, the Rays debating who played the biggest role in the win.

In a season in which very little has gone right, the Rays for a change had plenty to cherish from a 7-5 interleague victory over the Mets, and former Tampa Bay pitchers Steve Trachsel and Rick White, before a spirited 15,547 at Tropicana Field.

Was it the stirring pitching by Ryan Rupe, who allowed four singles over seven dominant innings? The full-count bunt single by Andy Sheets that set up the season-high six-run explosion in the seventh? The two-run Randy Winn double that followed? Or the back-to-back homers by Greg Vaughn and Fred McGriff that provided the necessary final margin?

"A good win," manager Hal McRae said.

The retelling has to start with Rupe, who had his best start of the season. Rupe strung together seven shutout innings, allowed two runners as far as second, struck out a season-high seven and retired 10 straight in one stretch.

"Rupe was the key to the whole game," Vaughn said. "Any time they got any momentum he was able to stop it and make a pitch. The defense was able to play good behind him because he was working at a good pace. And he was throwing strikes so it was easy for us to stay in the game."

Since returning from the minors, Rupe had one very good start against Anaheim, one poor start against Seattle that he insisted wasn't as bad as it looked, and one dominating show on Friday.

"Outstanding," McRae said. "As good as I've seen him."

Rupe said the key was throwing his changeup for strikes in critical situations. But he thought the biggest pitch was the backdoor slider he threw to strike out Robin Ventura with one on and one out in the sixth.

"I don't know, it worked," Rupe said. "I was fortunate to get that call. I think it was the turning point in the game. If something happens there, the game could easily turn around."

As it was, Rupe and Trachsel dueled impressively through six innings, with the Rays scoring the only run on a Trachsel wild pitch in the fourth.

But it all changed in the seventh when the Rays, with some help from their old friends, Trachsel and White, staged their most prolific inning of the season, scoring six runs.

The big inning had a modest beginning, a single to right by Aubrey Huff. Mike DiFelice was trying -- really, he was -- to give up an out with a bunt, but Trachsel, in his first start since a three-week stay in minors, was suddenly strike-challenged and walked DiFelice on four pitches.

Because his team has struggled so, McRae opted to play for one or two runs, figuring he'd take his chances that Rupe could protect the lead for another inning.

He had Sheets bunting -- even when the count went full -- and the Rays ended up with the bases loaded when Trachsel's throw to first wasn't true.

"I could visualize that if we tried something tricky we'd hit into a triple play," McRae said.

That was the end for Trachsel, who spent most of last season with the Rays, and the beginning of the end for White, who was here from 1998 until July.

After Damian Rolls forced Huff at home, Winn continued his hot streak, driving in two runs with a double that bounced over the leftfield fence. "A huge at-bat," McGriff said. "It was the hit of the night."

And after struggling Gerald Williams popped out, Vaughn drove a 3-and-1 hanging curve into the leftfield seats -- his 10th homer in his last 99 at-bats -- to make it 6-0. McGriff hit the next pitch out to right-center.

"One or two runs were all we were playing for and we got six," McRae said. "Sometimes playing small ball leads to big innings."

Naturally, the Rays followed that by turning what should have been an easy win into a struggle, as reliever Rusty Meacham gave up five runs -- four before getting an out -- in the ninth. Esteban Yan, who had blown three straight saves, came on to get the final out, throwing two pitches to retire pinch-hitter Mike Piazza, the potential tying run, on a groundout.

McRae said before the game that he really, really didn't want to use Yan for a third straight game, but with the chance for a victory, the team's 17th overall and 13th under McRae, pending, he changed his mind. "I had to," he said.

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