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Ninth belongs to Rays

Tampa Bay takes third straight series with another walk-off win.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first two months of the season, it seemed there was no way to properly quantify just how the Devil Rays were playing. Now that is the case again, but for entirely different reasons.

Do you start with the fact that with Thursday's 2-1 win over Anaheim, they have the best record (8-5) in the American League East for June? The news that they've won three straight series for the first time since August? The first back-to-back complete games in franchise history? Or how about winning on the final pitch for the second straight night, their first consecutive walk-off victories?

The game, played before an announced 13,210 at Tropicana Field, was 0-0 through 51/2 innings and 1-1 going to the ninth. And all it took for the Rays to prevail was a final inning of pitching mastery by Steve Trachsel and a stellar double play started by rookie first baseman Steve Cox, then a winning rally consisting of a single, an error, an Anaheim defensive lapse, an intentional walk, an unconventional defensive shift and a game-winning single by Russ Johnson, who was in an 0-for-13 slump.

"It's about time we had some fun; it's been a tough year," Trachsel said. "It's big. It's uplifting. Hopefully it will build confidence, and it should. We're capable of playing like this consistently."

They have been over the past couple of weeks, winning seven of 10 and nine of 15 while picking off three straight series after going 0-10-2. "That's what we talked about a lot in the clubhouse, winning the series," manager Larry Rothschild said. "It would be nice to get on a spurt, but when you win series you end up playing real well."

The Rays certainly did.

Trachsel was tremendous, holding the league's top-hitting team to six hits and the run, which scored on a seventh-inning double by Garret Anderson that tucked just inside the leftfield line. "He pitched his heart out," Rothschild said.

Trachsel got plenty of help. Rightfielder Jose Guillen made another awesome throw, nailing Darin Erstad at the plate on a disputed call to end the second inning. Cox, a late addition to the lineup, made a handful of strong plays, the most important in the ninth, when he scooped Anderson's grounder and threw to second, with shortstop Felix Martinez firing back to Trachsel at first for an inning-ending double play.

"It was just one of those defensive plays that happens all the time," Cox said. "It just turned out to be a really big play."

The Rays got their first run on a soaring sixth-inning homer by Bubba Trammell, who continues to produce in limited opportunities. Having started four straight for the first time this season, he is 7-for-12 with two homers.

In 87 at-bats, he has seven homers and 18 RBI. At that pace over 500 at-bats, he would have 40 homers and 103 RBI.

"When he gets hot he goes in spurts, and right now he's in one of those real good spurts," Rothschild said.

John Flaherty started the winning rally with a hard single to center off Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Cox then bounced a ball to second that Adam Kennedy booted, putting two on.

As bad as that mistake was, it wasn't Anaheim's worst of the inning. With Bobby Smith at the plate, the Angels set their infielders in motion expecting a bunt. But Smith took the pitch, and despite all the movement, no one covered third. Pinch-runner Miguel Cairo seized the opportunity and broke safely for the bag, easily outrunning shortstop Benji Gil. "I took a chance and I made it," Cairo said. "A good chance. You've got to play aggressive. Always."

The Angels then employed strategy both standard and unconventional. They brought Erstad in from leftfield as a fifth infielder, stationing him at second base, and intentionally walked Smith to load the bases.

That brought the right-handed Johnson to the plate with leftfield virtually unmanned, challenging him to pull the ball. Johnson fell behind 1-2, then lined a single over shortstop to deliver the winning run.

"They played the percentages, but the percentages didn't work out their way," Johnson said. "They had the right idea. The only thing that happened was that he left the ball up and I got it over the infield."

With all that has gone wrong, the Rays figure they are due for a lot to go their way.

"They had a snowball going on here," Johnson said. "The losing just keeps going on and on. Every time you think you're changing it, something else goes wrong. Now that snowball is starting to change. And it's rolling in the other direction."

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