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Divided after trades, Rays still conquer

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They checked in and out of four hotels in 12 days, were shaken by a harrowing plane ride, played two games with their manager suspended and saw three of their most popular teammates traded.

Still, the Devil Rays are smiling.

The Rays capped a 7-5 road trip and a four-game sweep of the Royals on Sunday by rallying for a tense 7-6, 10-inning victory that extended their season-high winning streak to five games.

"Not too shabby, is it?" closer Roberto Hernandez said.

The Rays left feeling good about completing their first winning road trip and first sweep of the season, but also feeling lucky. Sunday's game may have been a perfect microcosm of the state of the squad.

Steve Trachsel, the subject of trade rumors, pitched well enough and the hitters did enough that the Rays took a 6-2 lead into the eighth. But the reconstructed bullpen, in the first test since the trades of Jim Mecir and Rick White, gave it all away. Gerald Williams came to the rescue again, driving in the winning run with a two-out single.

"It was a little bit ugly on all accounts," manager Larry Rothschild said, "but at least we got it done."

It seemed they were going to get it done easily when Rothschild went to the bullpen for the final six outs.

Without White or Mecir, he called first on Doug Creek, but Creek walked Johnny Damon to open the eighth. Next was Esteban Yan, and he couldn't do anything right. He gave up a single to his first batter and a double to his fourth (and final), and in between was a brutal seven-pitch span of two passed balls and a hit batter. By the time Yan was done, the Royals were within 6-5 and had the tying run at second.

Mark Guthrie struck out his first man, but tossed a wild pitch that advanced Joe Randa to third, and allowed a single by Hector Ortiz that tied the score.

The Royals had a shot to win it in the ninth. Damon reached when first baseman Steve Cox bobbled a grounder, then went to second on a bunt. But Tanyon Sturtze got Todd Dunwoody on a groundout (with Damon moving to third) and got out of the inning. He eventually would get his first victory as a Devil Ray when Miguel Cairo leaped high to spear Randa's line drive. "Routine play," Cairo joked. "I just jumped up and I got it. It saved the team from losing the game."

If anything Sunday, the Devil Rays realized life is not going to be the same without Mecir and White to protect leads.

"We know it ain't going to be easy," said Hernandez, who finished for his 14th consecutive save, 20th overall. "We have to have some guys step it up."

"It's something that's going to take time," Rothschild said, "not only for the pitchers, but for me to get adjusted to what roles I'm going to use guys in and for them to get adjusted to that. It's going to be a little bit of an experiment to find the right guys for those innings and to see who fits where."

Williams, who broke a 2-2 tie with his 16th homer in the fifth, was the hero again in the 10th. Russ Johnson led off with an infield single, and stole second after newcomer Jason Tyner popped up a bunt and pinch-hitter Fred McGriff popped out. Williams lined a 2-and-2 pitch to left for his team-record 27th RBI of the month, and 71st overall.

"Gerald picked this team up and he's done it time and again," Rothschild said.

Williams said he didn't know he had broken McGriff's record, and didn't care for the specifics of his monthlong binge. He was more concerned with how the team came back to win despite all that went wrong.

"You have to deal with the circumstances as they are and not as they were," Williams said. "You still have to concentrate and battle and come away with a victory. That's the main focus. It doesn't matter how you get it done, you have to make sure you come away with a victory, and we did that."

With five wins a row, their longest streak since a team-record run of six straight in April 1999, the Rays are hoping to keep a good thing going.

"After starting out 1-4, to come home 7-5 we ended up having a good trip," Rothschild said. "We just need to keep playing well. There's a good feeling on this team right now. It comes along with winning, but the reason we're winning, I think, is that the feeling about and the desire to win is there first, and that's important."

Sweeping up

It was quite a week for the Rays. Among other things, they:

Recorded their third road series sweep in team history, second four-game road sweep, and first since May 15-18 at Baltimore.

Recorded their seventh overall series sweep, and first since beating the Royals Aug. 19-21 at Tropicana Field.

Won back-to-back road series for the first time since Aug. 12-18, and their first back-to-back series wins since June 9-18.

Posted their first winning road trip of the season.

Won five in a row on the road for the first time since June 19-27, 1999.

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