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Rays can't keep it close long enough

14-game stretch against Red Sox and Yanks ends with too typical 7-1 loss in New York.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 3, 2001


NEW YORK -- If 14 consecutive games against the Yankees and Red Sox are enough of a sample, the Rays now have a good sense of how they compare with the two best teams in their division.

They found they have the ability -- the pitching, the offense, the overall talent and skill -- to compete on a nearly equal basis for five, six, even seven innings almost every day.

Unfortunately for the Rays, the games still last nine innings. (Or 8 1/2 most days when they're on the road.)

And that, it turns out, proved to be their biggest deficiency of all.

"I thought we played well, but we didn't play long enough," manager Hal McRae said after the Rays ended the rugged fortnight with a 7-1 loss to the Yankees on Monday, giving them a 3-11 mark. "It's tough for us to play nine innings. I thought we competed, and we lost."

rays photo
[AP photo]
Albie Lopez studies the ball after he giving up six runs in the 7th inning Monday against the Yankees.
Monday was a prime example. Albie Lopez, who ran his losing streak to 10, and Mike Mussina were locked in a tense duel, and the score was 1-1 through six.

But then the Yankees scored two runs, on a bases-loaded single by Luis Sojo. And another, on a double by Alfonso Soriano. And three more, on a home run by struggling Chuck Knoblauch off rookie reliever Jesus Colome.

"It's hard to say we're a good team, but we've been more competitive of late," Ben Grieve said. "It seems like we're in every game until the seventh or so, and then we get blown up."

"You can't really compare them to us," catcher John Flaherty said. "We're a team that's getting a look at some young players and trying to figure out some roles in the bullpen, and these teams are teams that are established, they're running their lineup out there every day, their pitching roles are well defined.

"I'm not going to say it's a world of difference, but we're battling out there right now with our guys and we're playing hard, but maybe it's a play here and a pitch there that's making the difference in the ballgame.

"Today we stood toe-to-toe for six innings, and unfortunately it's one inning that got away."

That's the thing with the Rays, though. It's almost always something.

They'll get good pitching, but the starter will suddenly falter and a close game becomes a lost cause. The bullpen will blow a hard-earned lead. Hitters will fail to deliver, or even have a quality at-bat, in a key situation. Lately, and particularly annoying to McRae, they can't seem to catch the ball, giving away outs too frequently.

"I think everything that's required to get better was exposed over these games," McRae said. "We know where we need to improve, and it's very obvious if we are going to get better these are things we have to address."

The problem is that there is so much the Rays need to do to get better.

"There's too many areas that need to be addressed, which exposes you every day," McRae said. "That's too much exposure to deal with daily. It's like being in a war, a battle, and your flanks are not covered. You get attacked from too many directions.

"It's almost like everything has to be perfect for you to win a game, and that's asking a little too much, for everything to be routine for you to win a ballgame. Routine ground balls, routine fly balls. That's asking too much. There has to be some good plays made. There has to be some great plays made. And that's the way games are won. "There have to be people that are going to make those great plays in the infield, people that are going to make great plays in the outfield. You can't win when everything has to be routine."

McRae believes strongly in winning with pitching and defense. Having watched the Rays make numerous misplays and mistakes, particularly outfielders Greg Vaughn and Grieve, he has come to a frank conclusion: "It can't work in its present state."

McRae has tried almost everything he can with the players he has. Unless the players improve, or general manager Chuck LaMar, who also is dealing with a mandate from ownership to reduce payroll, obtains better players, there isn't going to be a lot of improvement.

"I don't know what can be done," McRae said. "I know what has to be done.

"It's a matter of are you going to just try to exist, or are you going to try to compete."

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