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Yan impresses in starter's role

The Mariners were all talking about the one pitch near Mark McLemore, but the Devil Rays were raving about the other 97 pitches Esteban Yan threw Saturday.

The former reliever continues to solidify his standing in the rotation, pitching into the seventh inning for his fifth start in a row. When Yan starts, the Rays are 5-4. With the rest of the rotation, the Rays are 9-23.

"He's just continued to make more and more progress as a young pitcher in this league," manager Larry Rothschild said. "As you can tell, he's a very good competitor, but he also has good stuff and has gotten better command of it.

"He's been a nice pleasant surprise here."

Yan got off to a rough start with a 1-1 record and a 6.59 ERA in April, but he is 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in four May starts. The bullpen blew leads in his previous two starts.

After giving up a leadoff homer to Rickey Henderson on Saturday, Yan retired 13 of the next 15 hitters and struck out a career-high eight on the day.

"I've been feeling better," Yan said. "I'm not throwing as many changeups and slow pitches. I'm using my fastball."

SAVING GRACE: It had been more than two weeks since Roberto Hernandez had a save on the line, and he had to work extra hard to convert the opportunity.

With the Rays in a six-game losing streak, Rothschild made the rare move of having Hernandez pitch two full innings.

The right-hander gave up a run on back-to-back doubles by John Olerud and Edgar Martinez in the eighth, but finished off the Mariners in the ninth for his first save since April

23.

"I had to use him for two innings and everybody knows I'm not a big proponent of that," Rothschild said. "We're in a situation where we have to win games and I have to do everything that I possibly can."

Hernandez said he was growing tired in the ninth and had to focus to keep his mechanics straight.

"I don't like losing and I don't like the way I've been performing," he said. "I've (messed) up quite a bit this year. I've made good pitches, but ultimately I didn't get the job done. That's the bottom line."

REBOUND: Billy Taylor's debut with the Rays was less than spectacular _ he was charged with the loss after facing three batters Friday night _ but it did not take long to make amends.

After the seventh-inning brawl, Taylor was brought in to relieve Yan with a 2-1 count on pinch-hitter Stan Javier and no outs. Taylor retired Javier and got out of the inning to turn over the game to Hernandez.

"It's tough coming in a game like that," Rothschild said. "He's got a 2-1 count and that's an important hitter and he got him out. That was key."

FINAL EXAM: In a final tuneup before coming off the disabled list, Jim Mecir threw two innings in an extended spring game. He has been sidelined for three weeks with tightness in his biceps, but is expected to be activated Tuesday.

"He seems to be over the tightness, so he should be ready to go when we get home," Rothschild said.

LEARNING A NEW TRICK: When they were teammates in New York, David Cone used to show Dwight Gooden how to grip a split-finger fastball. Gooden would fool around with the pitch, but never go it to work.

Then Rothschild talked to Gooden about it during a recent workout and showed him the release point was as important as the grip. Gooden quickly got comfortable with it and threw a half-dozen in Friday's loss to Seattle.

"I got a strikeout with it once," Gooden said. "A few of the hitters looked at it and then looked at me like, "Was that what I thought it was?' It'll be good if I could put that thought in their head and have them telling the other guys in the dugout that they have to watch out for it."

TOMKO'S START SHUFFLED: Mariners right-hander Brett Tomko, who left Friday night's game with stiffness in his shoulder, will make his next start Saturday at Tropicana Field instead of Wednesday in Baltimore.

"We'll give him a little more time," manager Lou Piniella said.

Tomko, 2-2 with a 6.06 ERA in six starts, left in the fourth inning Friday with the count 3-1 on John Flaherty. Seattle won 7-6.

HERE AND THERE: Vinny Castilla, Greg Vaughn, Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco combined to go 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts and two double plays. The Rays have played more one-run games than any team in the majors, going 9-9. The charity cigar smoker attended by Rothschild and several players after last weekend's game at Tropicana Field raised $3,500 for the Tampa Boys and Girls Clubs.

_ JOHN ROMANO, TIMES WIRES

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