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For Mecir, working late is okay with him

To Jim Mecir the job is the same. You just go to work a little bit later.

Mecir is the leading candidate to handle save situations for the Devil Rays until closer Roberto Hernandez works through his problems.

Manager Larry Rothschild said he will mix and match from a group that includes Mecir, Albie Lopez, Julio Santana and Esteban Yan. None has saved a game in the big leagues, but Mecir's 1998 performance and minor-league experience (40 saves, 26 at Triple A) appear to make him the first choice.

"He's thrown strikes and he's done as good a job as anybody, plus he's got experience," Rothschild said. Mecir has impressed the Rays by being aggressive and getting ahead of hitters, mixing a screwball, fastball and slider.

The Eckerd College product went into Tuesday's game having allowed five runs and 11 hits in 15 innings over 14 games, pitching mostly in the seventh and eighth innings. He said the situations are similar _ "You go in and try to hold the lead" _ and he would use the same approach if he gets called in the ninth.

"The only difference is that it's an inning later so the game is more on the line," Mecir said.

HOT STOCKER: SS Kevin Stocker was ejected during a heated argument with home-plate umpire Durwood Merrill during a seventh-inning at-bat. Stocker called Merrill a liar.

At issue was Stocker's attempt to call time. He said he asked for time and heard Merrill respond. "He said "Timeout' so I gave up on the pitch," Stocker said. Merrill, however, said Stocker's request was too late and what he said was, "No, we've got to go." Stocker, who never had been ejected from a major-league game before, said he never heard an umpire respond if he wasn't going to grant the request.

"When they don't give you a timeout they don't say anything," he said. "He made a mistake and he didn't own up to it. It's a joke."

Stocker also said he went too far. "I shouldn't have called him a liar. For that I'm sorry," he said.

ROLLING ROLANDO: Rolando Arrojo, tonight's starter, has been impressive in three straight outings, posting a 2-1 record and 1.57 ERA. Pitching coach Rick Williams said he expects more of the same tonight. "He's made some real good improvements the last couple of starts," Williams said. "He's used his changeup a lot more and changed speeds on his breaking ball."

BARGAIN FARE: The 900 Southwest Airlines Freedom Fare tickets ($3 for adults; $1.50 for children/seniors) for each game in the upcoming homestand will go on sale at 9 a.m. today.

RAYS WRAPUP: 3B Bobby Smith stole his first base. AL officials on Tuesday received the video tape of Rothschild's April 26 ejection but have not reviewed it. OF Rich Butler made his first start since being hit by a pitch on the right hand Thursday. RHP Rick Gorecki threw without pain on Monday.

_ MARC TOPKIN

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