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Rays revel in a taste of blood

[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
Tanyon Sturtze salutes Damian Rolls after the second baseman got upended on a crucial double play.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001


Rugged 5-2 win over Mets gives Tampa Bay first series since April.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Russ Johnson had a stitch in his left index finger. Damian Rolls had blood on his hands and bruises all over his body. Andy Sheets was striped with dirt.

And every one of them was smiling.

photo
Catcher Mike DiFelice shows umpire Joe Brinkman the evidence after tagging out Robin Ventura at home in the third inning.
The Rays scored a 5-2 interleague win over the Mets on Saturday, giving them their first back-to-back victories in 61/2 weeks and their second series win in 20 tries, and the best thing about it was that they did it the old-fashioned way.

They took chances on the bases. They made aggressive plays in the field. They went into bases hard, and hung tough when the Mets did the same.

"We've got to play that way," manager Hal McRae said. "First of all, that's the way it should be played. Second of all, it's fun to play that way. And if you do it right, it's exciting to play that way."

Add in a third straight quality start by Tanyon Sturtze, who was strong through seven innings, and some timely hitting, and it turned out to be a pretty exciting day at Tropicana Field for the 19,235 fans, the Rays' largest crowd in more than a month.

"It didn't get rough until the sixth or seventh," Rolls said. "It's the point where you can smell victory. No matter what you do, you play 100 percent. But when you can smell victory, it's like getting that taste of blood in your mouth."

The Rays were aggressive from the start, Randy Winn drawing a leadoff walk and scoring from first on Greg Vaughn's one-out double. Mike Piazza's all-muscle opposite-field home run tied the score in the third, but Gerald Williams snuffed their bid for more, launching a perfect throw to the plate to nail Robin Ventura.

The Rays came off the field fired up and responded quickly, with Rolls the catalyst. On second base after a leadoff double, the 23-year-old rookie made a daring break for third when Winn grounded to Gold Glove shortstop Rey Ordonez, and he ended up scoring when Ordonez's throw sailed into the dugout.

"I was trying to start something," Rolls said. "He's a great player and he probably makes that play nine out of 10 times, but I took a chance. If I had to do it tomorrow I'd probably think twice about it -- maybe -- but at the same time I still want to be aggressive and do it. You have to play aggressively, and I got lucky."

The Rays made the most out of it, getting another run when Winn went to second on the error, stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly by Vaughn (who has 13 June RBI), and one more on Fred McGriff's home run.

They added another in the seventh when Sheets singled and came around to score on yet another big hit by Winn, sliding headfirst into Piazza as the ball bounced loose.

That was enough for Sturtze, who pitched himself into and out of a few small jams but got Piazza to hit into a double play -- with a big hand from Rolls, who was upended by Benny Agbayani in the pivot -- to end the seventh on his 116th and final pitch.

"An outstanding job by Sturtze," McRae said. "The impressive thing about him is that he runs a high (pitch) count but he has good stuff. I don't know when he'll run out."

The Rays have had trouble cobbling together all-around good games, but on this night the beleaguered bullpen crew provided the final element. With Esteban Yan essentially unavailable and Doug Creek putting two of his three batters on base to open the eighth, McRae turned to Travis Phelps, who shed his recent struggles.

Phelps just missed a double play when the throw from Rolls, again in the middle of the action, was just high enough to pull McGriff off first. Phelps then loaded the bases with a walk to Darryl Hamilton but retired pinch-hitter Lenny Harris on a popup and breezed through the ninth to seal the win.

It was the first series win for the Rays since they took two of three from Kansas City April 24-26, as well as their first two-game winning streak since then and their third overall. They have yet to win three straight.

"A good game," said Johnson, who was spiked by Ordonez trying to break up a sixth-inning double play. "A real good ballgame. That's the way you want to play the game. You play hard every day, and good things happen."

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