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Perfect ending for Rays

Abernathy, Flaherty strike late to bust up Oliver's gem in 2-1 win.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The potential for history seemed promising. Texas left-hander Darren Oliver was dealing on the mound, and the struggling Rays, who hadn't been hitting much of anything for four days, were flailing at the plate.

Through three innings, then four, five, and into the sixth, Oliver set the Rays down in order. Sixteen in a row, and only one ball fielded by an outfielder.

With one out in the sixth, the Rays got their first hit, a home run by Brent Abernathy. With one out in the eighth, they got their third, a home run by John Flaherty. And a few minutes later, they got to celebrate a most exciting victory, 2-1 against Texas, and the end of their four-game losing streak.

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Brent Abernathy gets a handshake from Terry Collins, having halted Darren Oliver's perfect game bid.
"There was definitely a feeling of momentum on Oliver's side," Flaherty said. "Every inning he threw six or seven pitches and he was getting three outs. It's a momentum thing. It took one swing of the bat from Abby and you're able to relax a little bit more and forget about the no-hitter and the perfect game and try and scratch an inning together and get some runs and get some big hits."

A solo home run usually isn't much in the way of offense. But with Ryan Rupe in the midst of a stellar start, allowing the Rangers just one run through his seven innings, it was enough to get the Rays back to even.

More importantly, it gave them a chance to breathe.

"I don't think as a baseball player you'd be human if you didn't realize what was going on at that point in time," Abernathy said. "It's the middle of the game and you start feeling, sensing some guys, "Hey, we need to get this thing out of the way. We need to go ahead and get a hit, get somebody on base so we can work on scoring runs.' Once you get that first one, it's all kind of downhill after that."

Rays manager Hal McRae insisted he remained confident. "(Oliver) wasn't overpowering," McRae said. "He looked like he was capable of making a mistake."

Abernathy had struck out in his first at-bat, but the 23-year-old rookie had been watching closely. He noticed that Oliver tended to make the first pitch a good one, and when he saw a fastball over the plate, he gave it all he had.

"I'm not usually going to be the guy to hit the ball out of the ballpark," Abernathy said. "Fortunately it carried out of the yard."

Tyner followed with a bunt single but was stranded, and that was it for the Rays until Flaherty, with five hits in his past 41 at-bats, stepped up with one out in the eighth.

Greg Vaughn had told him to be more aggressive and to look to pull the ball, and Flaherty jumped on the first pitch.

"We're just not swinging the bat as a group right now, especially myself," said Flaherty, who hadn't homered since April 15, a span of 150 at-bats. "The home run was probably the furthest thing from my mind at that point.

"I wanted to get a ball out of the infield instead of popping up or striking out. A fly ball to the outfield would have been a bonus for me the way I'm going right now. The ball going out of the park was a complete surprise.

"Fortunately Abby broke the tension a little bit with his home run and we were able to squeak one out today. The pitching has been unbelievable."

Victor Zambrano got the win for a solid eighth, retiring Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez with the potential go-ahead run in scoring position, and Esteban Yan worked the ninth for his 10th save, thrilling an announced crowd of 37,070.

But it was Rupe, who hadn't won since June 14, who deserved the most praise, continuing a weeklong run of strong Tampa Bay pitching performances. He navigated the Texas lineup with confidence and precision, allowing the one run on a double by Ruben Sierra and a bloop single by Mike Lamb in the fifth.

"This was a big day for him confidence-wise," Flaherty said.

When Randy Velarde slapped a leadoff single with the middle of the order due up in the sixth, Abernathy made a sensational play, going across second to rob Rodriguez of a hit and quell any potential Texas uprising.

In losing the four in a row, the Rays scored three runs. They only got two Saturday, but it was enough.

"As much as we've struggled scoring runs the last four-five games, to come out with a 2-1 win is huge," Abernathy said. "You never know. That might be what we need. We only got three hits today, and we're still struggling with the bats. Maybe we'll come out (today) and throw up 10 runs. You never know."

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