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Coming through in a pinch baffles Cox

By MARC TOPKIN, MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Pinch-hitting is a difficult task for even the most experienced players. And for a rookie learning his way around the pitchers, umpires and ballparks, it can be a brutal challenge.

But to Steve Cox, it has been no big deal.

Cox has been the Rays' top pinch-hitter, going 6-for-15. Just don't ask him to explain how he has done so well at such a difficult chore. "I have no clue," he said. "And I don't want to know. You just have to stay ready and be loose and be relaxed."

You might say Cox is a quick study. Before this season, he figures he may have pinch-hit a grand total of three times. All through his youth, school and minor-league career, Cox has been a starter. There weren't many times where he would be on the bench hoping for an opportunity.

The first thing he learned was to stay ready, watching the game and occasionally heading to the batting cage for a few swings. But, in reality, there is only so much you can do.

"Pinch-hitting has a lot to do with luck, to be honest with you," Cox said. "You've got one chance to do something, and the odds are not in your favor."

Maybe not. But so far, Cox has come out ahead.

EASY COME, EASY GO: In the last two weeks, Fred McGriff has accumulated his 400th career home run and his 2,000th hit. But Sunday he lost his hold on the unique achievement of having hit home runs in more major-league parks than any other player. St. Louis' Mark McGwire went deep at Detroit's new Comerica Park on Sunday, the 37th stadium he has homered in. McGriff has homered in 36 parks but will have another chance to add Comerica to his list July 24-26. He was homerless there in three April games.

DANCING MACHINE: Groundskeeper and dance star McArthur Church should be grooving in full gear tonight. Church, whose seventh-inning routine has become a fan favorite at the Trop, didn't perform Saturday due to what team officials say was a communication problem. Baseball front-office officials told the grounds crew Friday the between-innings break needed to be shortened, but they apparently wanted the on-field work done more quickly rather than Church's time cut short. Team officials say the matter has been resolved.

WELCOME BACK: Ex-Rays shortstop Kevin Stocker will get a chance to sleep in his own bed with the Angels in town this week but don't expect him to be overly excited to be back on the turf at Tropicana Field. Stocker made 10 errors in 16 games at the Trop before being released May 25.

SHORED UP AT SHORT: Felix Martinez was called up from Durham May 25, made his first start at shortstop the next day and has not missed a game since. And the way he is going there's a good chance he may not miss one the rest of the season.

Martinez has hit safely in 13 of 16 games (including all 10 he has played in at Tropicana Field), is batting .333 and has dazzled defensively. Martinez has commited two errors, compared with 13 in 45 games by Rays shortstops before he arrived. Overall, the Rays are 8-8 with Martinez starting, 15-30 otherwise.

That defense was highlighted Sunday when Martinez made a diving stop of a Dave Berg grounder in the hole. Martinez rolled over, sat on his right knee and stretched his left leg out for balance before throwing to first to nail Berg by two steps.

"The way he has played, obviously he's the starting shortstop," manager Larry Rothschild said. "But to be a starting player in the major leagues there's a level of performance you have to achieve to stay there."

RAYS BITS: Designated hitter Jose Canseco, on the disabled list since May 28, could be back this week. He plans to test his sore heel before tonight's game. ... Rays starters have gone at least five innings in 15 consecutive games. They did that only 26 times in the first 46 games. ... With a 5-4 interleague record, the Rays have matched their season high for victories with nine games remaining against NL teams. ... Rays have played 24 one-run games, going 12-12.

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