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Youth falters in brutal loss

Sticking with rookie relievers costs Rays best shot at first win in 11 games against Red Sox as Boston rallies for 7-6 victory.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 27, 2001


BOSTON -- This is the other side of the youth movement. This is the problem with giving the kids a chance to learn in tough situations. This is when it hurts.

The Rays lost a game 7-6 to Boston they should have won Tuesday, lost a game when they knocked out an apparently injured Pedro Martinez in the fifth inning, lost a game when they took a four-run lead into the seventh, lost a game when they blew that lead then rallied to go back on top by one in the eighth, lost a game when they put the ball -- and the ballgame -- in the hands of rookie relievers Travis Phelps and Victor Zambrano.

photo
[AP photo]
Randy Winn can't evade the tag of Brian Daubach, who fields a wild throw in the ninth for the final out.
"We're new," Phelps said. "We're struggling with this stuff. We're still trying to learn too. It's tough."

The loss was the Rays' 11th straight to the Red Sox this season, and as ugly as it has been -- with the Sox holding an 86-34 scoring advantage -- this one, as maudlin as it is to rank them, may have been the worst.

"Obviously," catcher John Flaherty said, "it was a tough night."

Despite having lost their first 10 games of the season to the Red Sox and having the unfortunate assignment of facing Martinez twice in a week, the Rays seemed headed toward a most unexpected victory.

They got Martinez, who is likely to land on the disabled list with tenderness in his right shoulder, out of the game with three straight hits and a hit batter in the fifth. Then they went up 5-1 when Greg Vaughn greeted former Ray Rolando Arrojo with a grand slam, giving Vaughn 25 RBI in June, two shy of the team record for a month.

With native New Englander Tanyon Sturtze pitching valiantly in front of the Fenway faithful, that looked as if it would be enough, but Sturtze faded fast, loading the bases with one out.

"I didn't do my job," Sturtze said. "My job was to go out and put a zero up in the seventh. I do that and we get a W."

Left-hander Trot Nixon was up next, and manager Hal McRae brought in Phelps, the 23-year-old right-hander the Rays envision as a setup man, even though he had two lefties in the bullpen. Veteran left-hander Doug Creek, who threw 32 pitches Sunday, was unavailable, and McRae has been reluctant to use Jeff Wallace in tight situations.

Phelps, who had allowed one hit to the first batter in 14 official at-bats, tried to stay outside with his fastball. But he left it over the plate, and Nixon sent it over the centerfield wall to tie the score at 5, making Tuesday's game the first in nearly two years to feature grand slams by both teams.

"I was trying to be too careful," Phelps said.

The Rays went back ahead in their eighth when Aubrey Huff, who began the night in a 7-for-49 slump, hit a two-out, opposite-field homer, but that also wasn't enough.

With closer Esteban Yan on the disabled list, McRae has decided to see what Zambrano, a 25-year-old right-hander who had 12 saves at Triple-A Durham but was making his third major-league appearance, can do in late-inning situations.

"He was it," McRae said. "He was the only guy I wanted to use. It didn't matter, he was it. Coming off his last performance, he was the best guy for the spot, and I thought Phelps was the best guy for that situation."

Zambrano got a quick out in the eighth, then missed on a 1-and-2 slider that Shea Hillenbrand drove for a single. Brian Daubach then ripped a 3-and-2 pitch deep to right-center for a triple, tying the score again. "That pitch changed the game," Zambrano said.

Zambrano next walked Lou Merloni and Chris Stynes to load the bases and test McRae's patience. The next two Boston hitters were left-handers, but McRae stuck with his plan to stick with Zambrano.

"With Yan out, he probably gives us our best chance," McRae said. "He's shown he has the stuff to pitch late in the ballgame and he closed at Triple A."

With 32,185 fans screaming, Zambrano walked Scott Hatteberg on four pitches to force in what became the winning run, turning what would have been an encouraging victory into a frustrating defeat.

"They're tough spots for all of our young relievers," Flaherty said. "We have to find some spots to bring them in the game. He threw well against the Yankees the other day and he has a good arm. We had some guys down in the bullpen tonight and Hal took his chances with him, and it didn't work out. But he has good stuff and he's going to be fine."

Zambrano, at least, said the night wasn't a total loss.

"I learned a lot," he said.

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