By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000
BALTIMORE -- The Devil Rays had their chances to move into the lofty heights of fourth place Friday night. But they kept giving the Orioles chances, and Jerry Hairston finally took advantage of two of them, leaving Tampa Bay last in the division.
Hairston hit a game-tying two-run homer off Albie Lopez in the sixth inning and, after the Rays regained the lead with some help from the Orioles in the seventh, Hairston took it back with a two-run single off Billy Taylor in the bottom of the inning.
That gave the Orioles just enough to win 4-3 and move 11/2 games ahead of the Rays, who haven't occupied fourth place in the AL East by themselves since April 16.
Last time out, Taylor helped preserve Ryan Rupe's 3-2 win at Minnesota with a four-pitch, three-out masterpiece of relief. This time, taking over for Lopez, who left after six innings with a right hamstring cramp, Taylor's control deserted him.
He got the first two outs, but Jeff Conine singled and stole second, then Taylor walked Chris Richard intentionally and Brook Fordyce unintentionally before Hairston sliced a single to right.
"The first two outs, I felt great," Taylor said. "Then I started missing, and missing bad. ... I've had a couple of good outings, then I'll have a bad one. It's nobody's fault but mine. A time like this where I need to shut 'em down after we just scored a run, and I give up two runs. That just ain't going to cut it.'
Lopez's last two wins were complete games, a four-hit shutout of the Twins and the five-hit, 5-3 thriller against the White Sox ended by John Flaherty's three-run walk-off homer. Flaherty couldn't do it this time. He struck out with the bases loaded to end the game, leaving Lopez one win behind former teammate Rolando Arrojo's record of 21 as a Devil Ray.
"He never got his rhythm tonight," Rays manager Larry Rothschild said. "Still, look at what he did on a night when he didn't have a feel for what he was doing. He pitched a good ballgame, considering he was out of synch all night."
The Rays jumped on Pat Rapp in a hurry. Gerald Williams opened the game with a single up the middle and stole second. With one out, Greg Vaughn doubled into the leftfield corner, scoring Williams, and Vaughn came home when Fred McGriff singled to centerfield.
Inning after inning, Lopez pitched himself into and out of jams. "I was struggling, trying to keep the ball straight," he said. "It was moving all over the place."
Finally, the Orioles got to him. Conine opened the sixth with a double to left. Two outs later, he trotted home on Hairston's 356-foot fly ball just a few feet beyond leftfielder Steve Cox's reach. "It was a fastball. It was supposed to be over the outside corner but it ran back over the middle of the plate," Lopez said.
The Rays gave Lopez a short-lived 3-2 lead in the seventh. Jose Guillen doubled, and Felix Martinez dropped a bunt between third base and the mound. Rapp fielded it, looked at third, then threw late to first.
The mistake paid an immediate dividend. Williams hit a fly ball to short-centerfield. "I thought I heard (Melvin) Mora call for it," said Hairston, the second baseman, "and you always give way to the shortstop. ... It was my fault." The ball fell in for a single and Guillen scored.
The Rays could have had more. Miguel Cairo, batting for Cox, bunted the runners ahead -- the fans cheered derisively on the successful sacrifice -- and an intentional walk to Vaughn loaded the bases with one out. But B.J. Ryan replaced Rapp, struck out McGriff and got Bobby Smith on a grounder.
Lopez worked himself out of trouble in the first two innings, then got help from Martinez in the third.
Brady Anderson singled and stole second. After Lopez struck out Mora, Delino DeShields grounded into the hole at short. Martinez made a sliding stop and fired to first for the out. The play sent Anderson to third, and he was left there when Martinez made an even better play, diving to his right to catch Albert Belle's line drive.